Space Sunday: Europa, a Starshade and ambitions

Arthur C. Clarke’s fictional warning from 2010: Odyssey Two, given with regards to Europa. Now we may have a further reason to send a mission to probe the ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust. Credit: NASA / I. Pey

The words in the image above form part of the conclusion to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration with Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and itself made into a film by Peter Hyams. They come as the alien force responsible for the strange monoliths that triggered the events of 2001: A Space Odyssey cause the gravitational collapse of Jupiter, generating sufficient compression to start nuclear fusion, turning it into a mini-sun.

The actions were taken due to primitive life being found in the waters under Europa’s crust of ice; life trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac unless Europa received greater sunlight to melt the ice, evaporate some of the sea to expose landmasses and allow its burgeoning life the opportunity to grow and evolve. The words were issued to prevent humanity interfering in this process.

While there is no sign of aliens, monoliths, or anything like it around Jupiter, we do know there is a vast salty ocean under Europa’s ice, potentially 100 km (62.5 mi) deep and kept liquid as a result of the gravitational forces of Jupiter and other Galilean moons causing Europa to “flex” and generate heat deep within itself – and that ocean could be the home of life.

Europa’s internal structure, showing the subsurface ocean which could be up to 100 km (62.5 mi) deep. Credit: NASA

It had generally been thought that the salt in Europa’s ocean was likely magnesium chloride. Now a new study indicates that the salt could well be sodium chloride – the same salt present in our own oceans.  This has important implications for the potential existence of life in Europa’s hidden depths.

Scientists believe that hydrothermal circulation within the ocean, mostly likely driven by hydrothermal vents created on the ocean floor as a result of Europa’s “flexing”, might naturally enrich the ocean in sodium chloride. On Earth, hydrothermal vents have been shown to support life around them, which utilises the minerals and heat from the vent. Much the same could be occurring on Europa.

NASA has had many plans for missions to explore Europa’s ocean. Thus far, none have got beyond the the planning phase. Credit: NASA

Identifying the presence of sodium chloride has been a long time coming. Europa is tidily-locked with Jupiter, meaning it always keeps the same side pointed toward the planet. As a result, studies of the moon have been focused on its far side relative to Jupiter, as this side of the moon reveals much of the complex and continuing interaction taking place between Jupiter, Europa, and Jupiter’s innermost moon, Io, which results in sulphur from Io to be deposited on Europa.

Mixed in with these sulphur deposits are traces of magnesium chloride, which led researchers to believe it had been ejected from the moon’s ocean through the cracks and breaks that occur in Europa’s icy shell as a result of the internal “flexing”. However, when reviewing recent data obtained from the Keck Observatory, the team responsible for the new study found something odd. The data – gathered in infra-red – included the “side” of Europa facing along the path of its orbit around Jupiter – a face largely free from sulphur deposits from Io, although it is still stained yellow.

It had been assumed that this discolouration was due to more magnesium chloride being ejected from within Europa. But magnesium chloride is visible in the infra-red – and the Keck data didn’t reveal any such infra-red signature associated with the discolouration. So what might be causing them?

One of the study’s authors, Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, realised that sodium chloride is “invisible” under infra-red – but it can change colour when irradiated. Carrying out tests on ocean salts, he found they did turn yellow under visible light when irradiated. He then analysed the yellow in the salt and the yellow on Europa imaged by Hubble – and found the two exhibited exactly the same absorption line in the visible spectrum.

A pair of composite images of Europa. On the left, as seen in natural light; on the right the same image that has been colour enhanced. They show, on the right, the “far side” of Europa relative to Jupiter, the rust colour the result of sulphur ejected from Jupiter’s inner moon Io being deposited on Europa by Jupiter’s radiation belts, and which show evidence of magnesium chloride. On the left, the yellow staining, originally thought to be the result of further magnesium chloride deposits from within the moon – but which now have been shown to be sodium chloride – the same salt as found in our own oceans. Credit: NASA/JPL / University of Arizona

We’ve had the capacity to do this analysis with the Hubble Space Telescope for the past 20 years. It’s just that nobody thought to look.

Mike Brown, Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech, and study co-author

This is the clearest evidence yet as to the nature of Europa’s ocean and its similarity to our own, life-supporting ocean. However, it’s not absolute proof: the sodium chloride might be indicative of salt deposited in Europa’s icy crust from long ago, rather than evidence of it being contained with the moon’s oceans. However – and despite the fictional warning from Clarke’s novel – the study ups the need for us to send a mission to Europa that is capable of penetrating its icy surface and directly studying the ocean beneath ice, both for signs of possible life, and better understand the processes that might be occurring within its depths.

Starshade: The Quest to See Exoplanets

Over the last few decades, astronomers have discovered over 4,000 exoplanets orbiting other stars, leading to wide-ranging debates as to the suitability of such worlds supporting life. One of the ways we could better make such a determination would be through direct analysis of their atmospheres. The problem here is that given the distances involved, the atmospheres of exoplanets are effectively masked from observation from Earth by the glare of their parent star.

Plans are in hand to achieve this. When the WFIRST telescope is launched in the mid-2020s – assuming it continues to survive attempts by the White House to delay or cancel it – it will carry an instrument called the stellar coronagraph. This will effectively block the light of a star from reaching the telescope’s imaging systems, allowing it to see the atmospheres of planets roughly the size of Saturn or Jupiter or larger. But to see the atmospheres of smaller exoplanets  – the size of the majority so far discovered – an alternative its required. Enter Starshade.

Also called the New World Project, Starshade has been in development since 2005 – although it has yet to gain formal mission status. In essence, it proposes the deployment of a purpose-built space telescope and an “occulter” – a massive deployable, adjustable shade, 26 metres (85 ft) in diameter.

Starshade proposes using a large “occulter” (left) to block the light of distant stars so that a telescope (right) to study the atmospheres of planets orbiting the star. Note this image shows the shade unfurling following its deployment from its carrier vehicle, which also includes the originally-proposed telescope (seen at the right-hand end of the vehicle). once separated, the telescope vehicle would move away from the starshade before turning to align the telescope with it. Credit: NASA, 2014

The idea is that, placed between the telescope and a star with known exoplanets, the shade would block the star’s light – but allow the light from the planets be received by the telescope, allow it to be spectrographically analysed. This would allow scientists to understand the nature and composition of any atmospheres these planets might have, and thus determine their possible suitability for life.

One of the stumbling blocks for the proposal has been cost: developing and launching both a purpose-built telescope and occulter has been put at US $3 billion. However, were Starshade to be used with an already budgeted telescope – say WFIRST – that cost comes down to just US $750 million. Thus, the most recent studies related to the project have been focused on achieving this. In doing so, they’ve raised a significant technical issue: alignment.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Europa, a Starshade and ambitions”

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Lab opts to temporarily continue Quarterly Premium plan for new sign-ups

via and © and ™Linden Lab

On May 29th, 2019, Linden Lab issued a blog post outlining a number of changes to fees charged in connection with Second Life (see Land Price Reductions, New  Premium Perks and Pricing Changes). In particular, for the purposes of this article, the Lab’s post indicated the Premium subscriptions would be increasing after June 24hth 2019 as follows:

  • Monthly subscriptions will be increasing from US $9.50 per month to US $11.99.
  • Annual subscriptions will be increasing from US $72.00 per year to US $99.00.
  • Quarterly subscriptions will be increased from US $22.50 to US $32.97.

In that blog post, it was also indicated that from both Monthly and Quarterly subscriptions would be applicable to user in EU countries, while Quarterly subscriptions would be discontinued as an option from June 24th for those upgrading to Premium after that date, but would remain available for those already subscribed to that option.

These changes, and the others announced in the Lab’s blog post have generated considerable feedback. Some of this feedback, voiced through forum discussions and via assorted blog posts (see my own Dear Ebbe II” (on the subject of Basic account changes) resulted in the Lab reversing a decision to decrease the Basic account group allowance in favour of an increase in the same allowance for Premium members (see: LL reverse planned Basic account group limits reduction).

However, on Monday, June 10th, in responding to the comments left in the forum thread on the subject of the changes, Grumpity Linden indicated the Lab were making a temporary adjustment to the planned Premium fee changes, stating that the Quarterly subscription plan will now remain available to new premium sign-ups through until the “all-new membership level for those who want to get the absolute most out of their Second Life” is officially announced. The original blog post has been updated to reflect this.

Grumpity Linden’s forum comment on the short-term continuance of the Quarterly Premium subscription plan for users upgrading to Premium

This doesn’t offer much to those still feeling aggrieved by the fee changes as a whole (although – at the risk of earning a degree of ire – such changes are going to remain inevitable if the Lab is to maintain its ability to generate revenue whilst also meeting demands to lower virtual land tier), however, it does offer those wishing to upgrade to Premium but who are uncomfortable with playing the annual fee a further option to do so, albeit at the increased rate after June 24th, 2019.

Also, as can be seen in Grumpity’s reply, the Lab will try to address matters around the fee changes through their annual Meet the Lindens sessions that form a part of the Second Life Birthday events. As always, I will endeavour to provide a summary of these sessions, with audio extracts where relevant, as soon as possible after each session.

In case you missed it: SL Premium fees lock-in now available

via and © ™ Linden Lab

On Wednesday, May 29th, Linden Lab announced a number of changes to Second Life fees and services (see Land Price Reductions, New  Premium Perks and Pricing Changes).

In particular – for the purposes of this article at least – that blog post indicated that from Monday, June 24th, Premium subscriptions will be increasing as follows:

  • Monthly subscriptions will be increasing from US $9.50 per month to US $11.99 . This is  representative of a 26.21% increase over the course of a year (from US $114 pa to US $143.88 pa).
  • Annual subscriptions will be increasing from US $72.00 per year to US $99.00. This is representative of an increase of 37.5% pa.
  • Quarterly subscriptions will be increased from US $22.50 to US $32.97. This is representative of a 46.53% increase over the course of a year (US $90 pa to US $131.88 pa).

Further it was also indicated that after June 24th, 2019:

  • The Quarterly subscription package will be withdrawn as an upgrade option from June 24th, 2019, although Premium members already using the plan will be able to continue with it.
  • The Monthly and Quarterly subscription plans will be subject to VAT for EU residents.

In order to try to sweeten these increases (the first to Premium subscriptions in a long time), the Lab indicated that from Monday, June 3rd through until Monday, June 24th, Premium users would be able to “lock in” their current billing rate for one more cycle.

In case you missed it – as the Lab opted to update their May 29th blog post rather than make a separate announcement – the lock-in offer is now available, as highlighted by the Lab at the top of the May 29th blog post:

UPDATE: The limited-time opportunity for existing Premium members to lock in their current rates for one more billing cycle, including extending an existing monthly to use the current full year rate by upgrading now to annual is now available on the premium page. Simply renew before June 24th to extend your current Membership at the same low rate. For example, monthly members will be billed at the lower rate for one more monthly billing cycle, while annual members may renew (or monthly users may upgrade to annual) early to add one more year to your existing Membership at the current lower rate.

This means, for example, that as a Premium member on the annual billing plan, I normally have to renew towards the end of the year. However, if I take advantage of this lock in offer, I will effectively gain my 2020 membership at the current $72.00 rate (albeit paid well in advance), rather than having to pay $99.00 when my renewal falls due at the end of 2019 – I’ll only see the increase when / if I renew towards the end of 2020.

Whether you take advantage of the lock in or not is down to your personal choice and circumstance. However, should you wish to do so:

  • Go to your Second Life dashboard at secondlife.com.
  • On the left, and below your account name, click Account to display the account options drop-down, then click on Premium Membership.
  • Scroll down to the Management Membership section.
  • The lock in option will be displayed against your current membership plan (the image below shows it against Annual, as that is the plan I have).
  • Click the radio button to the left of the lock in option to activate the Proceed to Cashier button.
  • Complete the billing requirements.
Activating your Premium account billing rate lock-in

LL reverse planned Basic account group limits reduction

via and © and ™Linden Lab

Note: I’m getting to this a little late as I was caught-up on in-world projects when the news broke – so please excuse my tardiness.

On May 29th, Linden Lab issued a blog post indicating some major restructuring of fees for Premium members, for credit processing Linden Dollar amounts to fiat money and out of Second Life, and alterations to Premium and Basic account Group and IM capabilities.

In case anyone missed it, the original blog announcement is here: Land Price Reductions, New Premium Perks, and Pricing Changes and my own summary / initial thoughts on the changes are here: Linden Lab announces significant SL fee changes.

In my initial response I noted that while the Premium fee changes incur an “ouch!” factor, they are nonetheless understandable if the Lab is to meet the demand for lower virtual land tier fees and maintain its revenue flow. Of the other announced changes, the increase to credit processing fees, whilst again part of the revenue pivot, is nevertheless a hard bite to take for those generating their own income via SL, given it is the latest in a line of such increases over the last few years. However, and for many of us – Basic or Premium – the major injustice outlined in the Lab’s announcement was the cut to Basic account capabilities – namely the group allowance and the reduction in off-line IMs.

Again, as I noted in my initial blog post on the subject, and expanded upon in “Dear Ebbe II” (on the subject of Basic account changes, reducing Basic account capabilities in the manner proposed smacked of being a punitive act towards Basic account holders. This view wasn’t particularly helped by an official forum post indicating the Basic account reductions were an (ill-considered) attempt to encourage people to take out Premium subscriptions and – in the case of group allowances – an exercise in load-balancing to compensate for some of the group increase being given to Premium subscribers.

Such has been the upset that late on Friday, May 31st, the Lab openly conceded they’d made a mistake, and that the group allowance for Basic members will remain unchanged at the current limit of 42 – see: Group Limits Update: No Changes for Basic Members. However, the reduction in off-line IMs will still come into force from June 24th. So, as per the Lab’s update, From June 24th, 2019, Basic and Premium accounts group and off-line IM caps will be as follows:

Group and off-line IM capabilities as they are for Basic and Premium accounts, and as they now will be from June 24th, 2019 – the group allowance for Basic will remain unchanged

This does leave off-line IMs for Basic members reduced – although it has been suggested that planned changes to the events system might reduce the need for group messages to promote events, in which case this might help reduce part of the reliance on off-line IMs for at least some basic users (as well as possibly decreasing the reliance on groups overall in some cases). Time will tell on that; for the moment there is still understandable hurt over this reduction.

However, the fact that Linden Lab is prepared to listen and accept that they have erred on an issue should be acknowledged – and take steps to reverse that part of the decision that has caused the clearest feedback about the optics it presents – does deserve acknowledgement and a word of thanks for taking the time to listen, consider and respond.

“Dear Ebbe II” (on the subject of Basic account changes)

The Colder Water; Inara Pey, April 2015, on Flickr The Colder Water, April 2015

Update, June 1st: Following the amount of feedback concerning the planned reduction in the Basic account group allowance, Linden Lab has amnnounced this will not now be changing on June 24th, 2019. See: Group Limits Update: No Changes for Basic Members (Linden Lab) and LL reverse planned Basic account group limits reduction (this blog).

=======

Dear Ebbe,

Five years ago I wrote to you as you formally joined Linden Lab as the company’s new CEO. At that time, there was a certain degree of disillusionment among Second Life users about the platform, and I took it upon myself to comment on one area in particular: that of communications.

In the years since then, Linden Lab, Second Life and its user community have come a long way. It’s no exaggeration to say that things in 2019 are a lot different than 2014. Not just technically, but across a range of fronts, most especially that of the relationship between users and Lab.

You’ve seen this first-hand with regards to people’s attendance at Lab Chat and SLB Meet the Lindens events, where audience support and response has been positive and supportive to many of the programmes and developments the Lab has implemented, and towards the drive to increase awareness of, and involvement with, the platform.

True, things have not always been plain sailing; there have been hiccups along the way, but the Lab’s drive to improve SL and respond to many of the requests put out by the user base has been enormously appreciated. However, the most recent changes announced by the Lab with Land Price Reductions, New Premium Perks, and Pricing Changes (May 29th, 2019) have given me pause, and to take the time to write to you once more.

Throughout the last five years, I’ve personally appreciated the efforts Linden Lab have put into trying to meet the demand for lower land tier and to make virtual land holdings in Second Life more attractive. I also understand the need to offset such reductions with increases elsewhere to ensure LL as a company mains a good revenue flow. As such, while the fee changes announced on May 29th have caused me something of an “ouch!” reaction, I can understand the motivation behind them, and will learn to live with them.

However, what I feel is ill-conceived are the proposed Basic account changes.

Although I can understand there may well be technical reasons for doing this (load balancing to enable the increases to the same capabilities that are to be offered to Premium subscribers, perhaps?), the fact remains this these reductions come across as best as being punitive and at worse entirely mean-spirited towards Basic account holders. As my friend and fellow SL user Will Burns has noted:

One increases the value of a Premium account by actually increasing the value added proposition, not forcing the issue by reducing the value added of the free account.

I would therefore urge you to re-consider this move, and allow Basic members either retain their current 42 group limit, or as a compromise (and while I appreciate this is easier said than done), seek to allow current Basic member retain the current 42 groups cap whilst restricting those joining after June 24th to a maximum of 35 groups.

I am not the first Second Life user, Premium or otherwise) to voice concerns over this move. Please do take the time to consider what is being said the changes to Basic accounts via Twitter, in the SL forums and other social platforms, and how they could stand to significantly alienate a good portion of a user base that, while they may not pay subscription fees, nevertheless play an important role in both the economic and social fabric of Second Life, and who – like all of us engaged in the platform – want to see it continue to thrive and grow and remain a part of our lives.

My best,

 

Inara

Linden Lab announces significant SL fee changes

via and © ™ Linden Lab

Update, June 1st: Following the amount of feedback concerning the planned reduction in the Basic account group allowance, Linden Lab has amnnounced this will not now be changing on June 24th, 2019. See: Group Limits Update: No Changes for Basic Members (Linden Lab) and LL reverse planned Basic account group limits reduction (this blog).

On Wednesday, May 30th, Linden Lab announced further changes to Full private region fees, significant changes to Premium subscription fees and to credit processing fees, and changes to some Premium and Basic account capabilities.

As detailed in an official blog post, the changes can be summarised as follows:

Full Private Region Tier Change

Source: Linden Lab

The Lab notes that:

  • These fees are exclusive of VAT, where applicable, and do not apply to Skilled Gaming region.
  • Education / Non-profit (EDU/NP) discounted Full islands will be re-priced to maintain their 50% discount off the regularly priced Full island fees.

Premium Subscription Fee Increase

In the same blog post, Linden Lab have announced a re-structuring / re-pricing of Premium subscriptions as follows:

Source: Linden Lab

Notes:

  • The monthly fee increase represents an annual increase of 26.21% (from US $114 pa to US $143.88 pa).
  • The annual increase represents an annual increase of 37.5%.
  • Quarterly subscriptions are to be retired as an option for users wishing to upgrade to Premium, but will still be available to those already using this plan. The fee increase of US $22.50 to US $32.97 represents an annual increase of 46.53% a year (US $90 pa to US $131.88 pa).
  • Both monthly and quarterly subscription fees will be subject to VAT, where applicable.

With regards to these Premium subscription changes, the Lab note:

To help with the transition to the new pricing, starting June 3, we’re offering a limited-time opportunity for existing Premium members to lock in their current rates for one more billing cycle, including extending an existing monthly to use the current full year rate by upgrading now to annual. Simply renew before June 24th to extend your current Membership at the same low rate. For example, monthly members will be billed at the lower rate for one more monthly billing cycle, while annual members may renew (or monthly users may upgrade to annual) early to add one more year to your existing Membership at the current lower rate. We will update when the option becomes available on June 3rd. Until then – if you are not up for renewal already, you will not see the option to lock in your current price. Keep an eye out for updates.

Credit Processing Fee Changes

In what will be seen as a further blow to those regularly / routinely cashing-out from Second life, the blog post also announced changes to credit processing fees, to wit:

Effective June 24, the fee for processing credit transactions (i.e. paying real money into a PayPal or Skrill account) will be 5% per transaction with a minimum fee of US$3 (there is no maximum fee).  The fee is currently 2.5% per transaction. This fee change offsets increased regulatory and compliance costs to Linden Lab and is in line with our continued commitment to the long-term successful operation of Second Life.

Change to Premium and Basic Account Capabilities

In order to try to offset some of the negative feedback these changes have already cause (as per at least two forum threads, here and here on the topic), the Lab also indicated increases to a couple of perks available to Premium members, together with a decrease in the same capabilities available to Basic account holders, a per the table below.

Source: Linden Lab

Note that group membership will not be revoked for Basic members who are involved in more than 35 groups at the time this change comes into effect. However, Basic members will be unable to join new groups until they reduce their group enrolments to below the new 35 group limit.

In addition, the Lab indicate that further improvements to Premium memberships  will be announced later in the year, as will a new Premium membership level, “for those who want to get the absolute most out of their Second Life.”

Thoughts as Premium Member

As one who is a Premium Member, I’m not entirely sanguine about the pricing increase – although I appreciate that in trying to pivot revenue generation away from a reliance on virtual land fees, Linden Lab must ensure any potential shortfalls are adequately guarded against. I’m also aware that while the Premium fees increase does hurt – it is actually the first such increase I can recall for a long time.

How this effects Premium level overall remains to be seen; however, my personal feeling right now is that unless the to-be-announced Premium membership level is truly exceptional in terms of benefits and opportunities, it is going to be hard to justify making a leap to it based on the prices announced with these changes and what might be taken from them in estimating to potential cost of any new membership package.

Those who are likely to feel particularly aggrieved are those who do routinely cash-out from Second Life, given credit processing fees have seen a number of increases over the last few years. While the Basic account changes come across as punitive in nature.

Please refer to the official blog post for the full text relating to these changes.