Midweek Progress Report XI, Futurist Sneak Attack Edition

Speculation time is over, friends. The future has jumped us like a ninja in the night.

There's been talk of eventually and gradually transitioning to autonomous automobiles, but of course the going has been slow since one flaw in a driving algorithm could needlessly cause a bunch of collisions. Well, surprise surprise: Google has outfitted a fleet of seven cars with self-driving software. Yep, these cars have been driving without human hands for the past 140,000 miles. To be fair, there were still people in the cars, so they weren't entirely unmanned, but that was just in case of emergency.

You might have heard about the discovery of Gliese 581 g, the best candidate so far for an Earth-like planet within a habitable range of its star (the "Goldilocks zone"). Maybe you heard it from me. Well, as it turns out, alien life might be much more close to home. The Japanese Hayabusa probe, that was sent to collect dust from the asteroid Itokawa, might have recovered some organic, possibly biological, stuff. (Further analysis pending.) And meanwhile, on Mars, caves and lava tubes could host bacterial life, just as the lava tubes and sulfur vents of the deep ocean support a vast and weird ecosystem.

Maybe we should start planning for more exploratory missions, you say. Not to worry; NASA has proclaimed the next 23 months to be the "Year of the Solar System" (that's a Martian, year, in case you were wondering). One of the more exciting projects includes launching a probe into space with a box of organic chemicals and microbes, in an experiment to see what effects the conditions of outer space might have on life and its component parts.

Oh, and manned missions could be just around the corner too. Aren't they retiring the Space Shuttle? Yes, and a new crew vehicle is still in the design stages. But all the major space agencies have been tossing around the idea of using the International Space Station as a kind of launchpad for moon landings.

But there's also a need for stuff back here on Earth. Take electricity, for example. Solar and wind farms are catching on as the price of that power goes down, but one big problem is an apparent lack of available space. Well, as it turns out, Google (what can't it do?) is backing an offshore wind-power grid that will light up the Eastern Seaboard. And the federal government has authorized solar power plants to be built on public land.