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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Good thing he's white, otherwise this would be an act of terrorism.

Okay, this was not an "oops, I was drunk". Wildcatting the anchor on a vessel that size is no small evolution. At the very minimum he had to disengage the devil's claw and open the riding pawl before releasing the friction brake. This isn't rocket science, but it isn't making mud-pies either. The guy apparently worked in an RV store, and did not have a maritime background. He could have learned how to release the anchor online before going on his trip; for example, there's a pretty detailed description of how to operate an anchor here. But he would have had to have done his homework, and even then the chances of him successfully dropping the anchor by himself, in the dark, unnoticed by the crew or passengers, are pretty damned slim. The same task done by the ship's crew would have required three people for the anchor detail. A military ship would have had rather more than three. This was not the action of a guy getting drunk and stupid. This was premeditated, and rehearsed.


(CNN) -- A Holland America cruise ship was disrupted early Saturday morning by an intoxicated passenger who released the ship's anchor, according to an affidavit obtained by The Smoking Gun website.
California resident Rick Ehlert, 44, released the anchor and a life buoy between 5:25 a.m. and 5:55 a.m., according to the affidavit.
The MS Ryndam was unharmed, but the release of the anchor could have caused "significant damage to the ship's rudder or propeller, which could disable the ship's ability to maneuver, or puncturing of the ship, which could result in sinking or severe flooding," according to the affidavit.
The ship was traveling from Costa Maya, Mexico, to Tampa, Florida.
A surveillance video shows Ehlert taking multiple steps to deploy the anchor while the ship was in motion. The MS Ryndam's maximum speed is 22 knots, which is approximately 25 mph, according to Holland America's website.
Ehlert confessed to dropping the ship's anchor when questioned by special agents from the FBI. He admitted to being intoxicated at the time and detailed the multiple steps he took in deploying the anchor, including entering an area marked as off-limits to passengers.

Full Story

Monday, November 29, 2010

Blue Danube

The first of our candidates for relatively easy outmigration is a relatively large orbital space station.

It has long been understood that from a standpoint of energy use, the two best orbits for a high orbit space station are the L4 and L5 Langrangian points, which are actually on the moon's orbit 60° ahead and behind it. 

While these two orbits are almost infinitely stable, by virtue of being at the moon's orbit they require about the same amount of energy to reach as the moon does. This immediately lowers the desirability of these orbits. Also, by being at that distance a space station spends almost no time in the earth's shadow, which effectively doubles the amount of solar radiation received in a given period of time over that of the same space station in low earth orbit. For these and other reasons, a moderately sized space station in low earth orbit is probably the best, at least at this point in our technological development.

Pictured above is Space Station V from the movie 2001, a Space Odyssey. Like much of the movie, Kubrick's version of Clarke's vision gets most of the science mostly right. SS5 is toroidal to allow for centripetal "force" to function as an artificial gravity. As such, it is the only one of our candidates which can reasonably approximate earth's gravity; all of the rest will have significantly less gravity than we are accustomed to.

SS5's toroids are individually relatively small and modular, making it easier to build in stages while utilizing the stages which are already completed. We see this in the movie; one module is fully functional while the other is still under construction. Unlike a colony on Mars or one of the moons, all of the resources to build a space station like this would need to come from earth. However, we have already established the protocols for doing so with the existing International Space Station. It is also possible that instead of a true toroid, we could build a segmented toroid out of spent liquid fuel tanks of rockets which are already being put into low orbit for other purposes. A version of this technique was first envisioned by Wernher von Braun in his original proposals for what eventually became Skylab.

A space station like SS5 could support a significantly large number of colonists in close enough contact with earth to make regular commerce between earth and the station economically feasible. Said commerce would eliminate the need for complete independence from earth during the critical first stages of colonization. In almost every respect this would be the easiest of the four proposed attempts at outward colonization to achieve. The lessons already learned from ISS, Skylab, Mir, Almaz and Salyut will prove invaluable, and a toroidal station will have the significant advantage over all of these of not having to contend with the long-term effects of microgravity on the human body.

The biggest disadvantage from the standpoint of species survival is its biggest advantage form every other standpoint -- the ease and frequency of physical contact with earth. If earth's human population were severely threatened with extinction by infectious disease, in all likelihood a low orbital station, with its frequent exposure to terrestrial humans, would succumb as well. For most other scenarios, a thriving colony in low earth orbit could very well mean the difference between survival and extinction of the species.

I would, however, probably opt out of the ugly red chairs.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Outward ho!

The previous post discussed one method of sending a crewed mission to Mars: one-way, all expenses paid.

What was not discussed, and needs to be, is whether or not NASA should be spending any of its precious and limited resources on crewed space exploration at all.

With the Space Shuttle missions nearing their end, NASA is (wisely) turning the business of low-orbital cargo and personnel runs over to the private sector. Spaceport America is nearly complete and should be fully operational by the middle of next year, with commercial flights to low orbit and commercial space stations finally becoming a reality.

This leaves two somewhat conflicting futures for NASA. The first, which seems to be getting the most funding from this current administration (which was decidedly not the case with the previous administration) is for unmanned deep space exploration, both in terms of next-generation replacements for Hubble such as the  James Webb Space Telescope, and also robot probes to the outer planets and their moons, and eventually to the nearest stars. The second is manned missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, with the ultimate goal of colonizing other worlds.

From the standpoint of pure research, this is a no-brainer. We do not need to send humans further into space than low earth orbit, and that only for routine maintenance of satellite telescopes. While it is true that a human is better equipped to respond to and analyze an alien environment than a robot is, it is still more cost effective (and much safer) to design and build better robots than it is to design missions around human life-support. 

So, what is the value in creating manned missions to the moon, Mars and beyond?

Certainly there is something of a Mount Everest factor; humans are exploratory by nature, we want to go simply because we can. This stands alone without further comment; we want to go to Mars because, dammit, we want to go to Mars.

Some have suggested exploiting the planets and their moons for natural resources, but this is not going to be in any way cost-effective within this century, and it may never be. Titan holds interesting promise as a source of hydrocarbons, but by the time we would be able to extract and transport them to earth we will have hopefully ended our dependence on hydrocarbons for fuel and plastics.

The last (and probably best) reason to colonize some territory beyond earth's atmosphere is that right now all of the human population's eggs are in one basket, and we're just barely wise enough to realize that if we want to survive as a species, this is a really bad idea. If humans remain exclusively on earth's surface, we will eventually become extinct. It really doesn't matter so much whether the immediate cause of that extinction is an asteroid strike such as what led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, a near-by gamma ray burster, a super-volcano, war, plague, famine or global warming. Any of these have the potential to eradicate all human life on earth, and any of these have the potential to happen within the next ten thousand years, or the next ten thousand minutes. And each of these allow some possibility of the human species surviving if we happen to have already colonized off-world if and when they occur. It seems that NASA and DARPA are both looking at this possibility in regard to serious proposals for outmigration.

First off, let me state that the fact that NASA and DARPA together have been allocated about $1,000,000 to study the possible means of outmigration means that the US government is not altogether paranoid about an asteroid hitting the earth this fiscal year. Of all of the possible means of human extinction, the one which is by far the most likely to actually cause that within the next century is global climate change, and we would be far better served spending our money eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions than building lifeboats to a planet which doesn't, as far as we know, support any life at all. But it is still reasonable to be preparing to get some of our eggs into a different basket, as a contingency for any of the myriad possible extinction-level events which could befall our world.

So, given our current technology, what are our best candidates in our solar system for a second home for our species?

I've given this a bit of consideration, and I'm going to name four candidates (which are not mutually exclusive of each other, it may well be that five baskets are better than two) for relatively easy colonization. Over the next few days I will talk about each candidate in more depth, and also discuss why I relegated a few candidates to the "B list" which others might not have. 

So, my four candidates for potential colonization within this century are, in order of proximity to earth:

1) A large earth-orbiting artificial space station

2) The moon

3) Mars

4) One (or all) of the three outer Galilean moons of Jupiter, probably either Europa or Ganymede but Callisto has some marks in its favor as well. We'll discuss the possible merits of each of these.

Why not Enceladus or Titan? Both are excellent candidates for finding extraterrestrial life, but neither would be especially hospitable to humans, even as such things go. Enceladus is really small, and Titan is toxic. Neither of these problems are insurmountable, but the other candidates pose fewer challenges.

More to come.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

To Mars, by Conestoga Wagon

Several weeks ago I posted about Pete Worden at NASA Ames, and his announcement that the US would be revisiting the concept of the "100-year starship", or Project Orion. During the same announcement Worden also stated that NASA would be looking seriously into the "Mars to Stay" concept, which is to say, sending humans to Mars on a one-way trip. More on the merits and demerits of this concept in a minute. The first and most salient point is, these two projects are TWO SEPARATE PROJECTS. They have nothing to do with each other. Pillars of journalism and scholarship such as Fox News, the Daily Mail and Wikipedia have managed to conflate the two projects into a 100-year starship to Mars.

For the rocket scientists who look to Fox News, the Daily Mail or Wikipedia for information, please allow me to clarify.

Mars is not a star. It is a planet, somewhat like Earth. As planets go, Mars is pretty close to Earth. A currently existing chemical rocket such as the Saturn Vs which were used in the Apollo missions, using Hohmann Transfer Orbits (the "shortest" distance between to points orbiting the same body, in this case our sun) would get from Earth to Mars in about 214 days. A year on Earth is about 365 days, and a year on Mars is about 687 Earth days, so any way you slice it the trip to Mars is rather less than one year. Chemical rockets are the bottom baseline of speed for interplanetary voyages; every other propulsion system under consideration is faster, in some cases much, much faster.

To get from the Earth to Mars in 100 Earth years, you would have to average about 42 miles per hour.

If I were a bit skinnier and didn't insist on wearing so much protective gear and carrying so many books, I could do that on my 50cc scooter.

So, hopefully, we can dispense with the notion of a "100 year Starship to Mars".

That settled, what exactly is the idea behind a one-way trip to the red planet?

Setting aside for the time being the question of whether to build and launch a ship from Earth's surface, in orbit or on the moon, there are basically three ways of getting humans to Mars (alive).

The first is to do just what we did with the Apollo missions; take everything you need for the entire round trip with you. This is psychologically comfortable, but wildly impractical from the standpoint of serious exploration. None of the great expeditions on Earth would have succeeded without some degree of living off the land.

The second is to only take what you need to get there, and then make your fuel and water for your return trip while on Mars. This is called "Mars Direct", which I will be posting about in-depth at a later date.

The third option is to take everything you need for a one-way trip, plus everything you need to begin permanently colonizing Mars. This is the option Pete Worden was talking about. And because Pete Worden is talking about it, it would seem that this is the method NASA is most seriously considering.
I've seen a lot of ink (or bandwidth) spent in the weeks since Worden's announcement criticizing the idea of sending people to Mars with the intention of stranding them there. I have to say, I'm not sure I understand what the fuss is about. When the first European settlers crossed the Rockies in covered wagons heading west, they did not seriously imagine that they would ever see Boston again. It happens that due to the subsequent building of the transcontinental railroad some of the early pioneers were able to return east, and some analogue of this may prove true for our first martian settlers. Or, it may not. But I cannot imagine that on a planet nearing 7 billion people that we can't find a handful who would be more than happy to head to Mars (or Europa) with only their families and such possessions as they could stow in a backpack. The life they would find on an alien and hostile world would be more grueling than the most inhospitable climates on Earth. Prudhoe Bay or Death Valley would both seem like a tropical paradise by comparison. Some of the settlers would die. And some of the settlers would live, and have children, and build a life for themselves in this new wilderness.

Another thing Pete Worden mentioned was the possibility of genetically engineering the settlers to be better adapted to the environments they would settle. This makes sense. It is far easier to adapt an organism to a new environment than it is to adapt the environment to the organism, even though that's not the way modern humans typically do it. Frankly, even if we don't engineer our settlers' genes, Mars will engineer them for us via natural selection.

Yes, this means that some of your descendants will not live on Earth at any point in their lives. And, because they live on another world, they won't look like you, or me. That's okay.

The meek will inherit the earth. The rest, eventually, will inherit the stars.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Broken crystal balls

Not all weather forecasting relies on sophisticated computer modeling. Sometimes it's just a matter of simple pattern-recognition. You see this particular set of variables together and the next day you have this particular weather; multiple repetitions of the pattern becomes a trend. A few subsequent successful predictions based on that trend, and the correlation becomes canon, more or less.

A shining example of this is a model which has been used to successfully predict major snowstorms in the Salish Sea basin. I first heard of it from my wife, who at the time was an undergrad at UW; she had come up with it on her own through simple observation over one season of especially frequent snowstorms. I then saw it published by NOAA Commander Ken Lilly in the excellent Marine Weather of Western Washington.

The model is this. If you have:

a) a very deep and cold High over central British Columbia

b) a very deep Low marching in just south of the Olympic Mountains and

c) the jet stream sitting right over the Columbia River

then you are setting up for a very substantial snowstorm.

Over the past 20 years I've watched this pattern play out many times. More importantly, I have not seen a major snowstorm develop here without these parameters.

On Sunday night, we didn't meet any of these parameters. We expected the arctic blast, we didn't expect the snow. This week's weather changed the model. A lot of people will be poring over a lot of data gathered this week and developing new models from it for better prediction in the future. Is this week's storm, as some media outlets have suggested, a symptom of global climate change? Possibly. More on that topic later today.   

Monday, November 22, 2010

Butterfly Effect vs. the Meteorologists

That. Was one. Big. Mother effing. Butterfly.

More on the snow storm that wasn't supposed to be, tomorrow.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blue Moon Blues

Several news outlets have been reporting tonight's full moon as a "blue moon", which of course seems ludicrous since it's only the third week of the month. However, this is apparently based on a now defunct definition of a blue moon, being the third full moon in a season which has four full moons. 

So the media was able to glean this bit of trivia from gods only know where, but failed to understand that a 100-year starship and a one-way ticket to Mars were two different projects.

The mind reels.

From Joe Rao at

The full moon of November arrives on Sunday and will bring with it a cosmic addition: It will also be a so-called "blue moon."
"But wait a minute," you might ask. "Isn't a 'blue moon' defined as the second full moon that occurs during a calendar month? Sunday's full moon falls on Nov. 21 and it will be the only full moon in November 2010. So how can it be a 'blue' moon?"
Indeed, November's full moon is a blue moon – but only if we follow a rule that's now somewhat obscure. 

                                          Photo (c) Laura Treadway

In fact, the current "two- full moons in one month" rule has superseded an older rule that would allow us to call Sunday's moon "blue." To be clear, the moon does not actually appear a blue color during a blue moon, it has to do with lunar mechanics.
Confused yet? 
Well, as the late Paul Harvey used to say — here now, is the rest of the story 

Butterfly Effect Update, Updated

So, here in West Seattle it's starting to snow like it means it. Papa Lorenz always wins.

I failed to post it earlier, but here's the link to Lorenz's 1962 paper on Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Butterfly Effect Update

In the time it took me to type that last post, Cliff Mass at University of Washington Meteorology has posted on his blog that they now believe that snow will miss the Salish Sea basin, and instead be concentrated south of Olympia. Which happens to agree pretty well with the NOAA/NWS predictions from earlier today.

The Butterfly Effect

There seems to be an especially high amount of uncertainty and inconsistency regarding regional weather predictions for the next few days, specifically regarding the potential for snow in the Salish Sea basin this weekend. Even Cliff Mass has a (very good) current blog post on the subject titled "Uncertainty". So, if Dr. Mass is publicly stating that we don't know if it's going to snow or not, I'm sure not going to try to second guess him. However, I thought this would be a great opportunity to look into why it is that with all of our sophisticated weather monitoring and modeling, we still really can't give the quality of predictions that people would reasonably like.

Part of the answer is one that nobody really wants to hear. And that is that not only can we not effectively predict weather much more than a week in advance on the best of days, we may not ever be able to predict weather much more than a week in advance.

Rita Mae Brown (not Albert Einstein, or Benjamin Franklin, or whomever) once stated that doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results, was a definition of insanity. Which of course is not true; if I flip a coin five times and get "heads" each time, unless it happens to be a double-headed coin I can reasonably expect that the next time I flip it I will have a 50% chance of getting "heads" and 50% chance of getting "tails", more or less. In meteorology the corollary would be, "beginning with identical initial parameters and expecting differing end results is a fundamental principle of chaos theory".

Meteorologist Edward Lorenz, using the first primitive digital computers to analyze atmospheric modeling data, was the first to recognize this. His initial discovery was accidental. Having failed to record the results of several days of data modeling, he simply reran the initial data to duplicate the lost results, and found that the results were now dramatically different. At first he thought that he had either entered the initial parameters wrong, or else there was an error in the program itself, but this proved not to be the case. The only anomalies were infinitesimally small rounding differences, but these were enough to completely change the end results, which were only a few days "downstream" of the initial parameters. Here is a graphic representation of Lorenz's original data streams, the "rerun" stream overlayed on top of the original stream:

In 1963 Lorenz published his findings under the title Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow, and came to refer to this divergence of result as the "Butterfly Effect", based on the inescapable conclusion that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could create a tornado in Texas. And thus was born the entire discipline of chaos physics.

Lorenz's early computer modeling only allowed for six initial parameters, but the underlying physics remain the same. Infinitesimal changes in the atmosphere completely alter the outcome of atmospheric modeling only a few days into the future. Which means that the very most sophisticated modeling, with the best supercomputers which can be imagined, using perfect data from radar and satellites and instruments which have not even been conceived yet, will never be able to accurately predict the weather more than about a week into the future. And in some cases, such as what we have in western Washington this week, rather less than that.

Which means that no matter how sophisticated our weather prediction becomes, we may always, occasionally, have to shovel 6" of partly cloudy off of our sidewalk.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Wreck of the SS Dix

A lot of maritime blogs, including this one, have committed a lot of bandwidth the past couple of weeks to the launching of the new Washington State Ferry m/v Chetzemoka, and her various stability and trim problems.

Today I want to remember another ferry serving the Puget Sound region, which was lost 104 years ago today off of Alki Point. At 1942 on November 18, 1906 the steam schooner Jeanie collided with the 103' passenger steamer Dix, sending her to the bottom within five minutes of the collision. 39 of the 77 passengers and crew of the Dix lost their lives.

Captain Philip Mason, master of the Jeanie, was later exonerated from all responsibility for the collision. The blame was placed on First Officer Charles Dennison of the Dix for failure to observe the right-of-way, and also on the deplorable stability and trim of the SS Dix.

The full story is here at History Link

Monday, November 15, 2010

A dark and stormy night

There is a time for science, and there is a time for play.

What better way to spend this night of gale-force winds and the first clear skies we've seen in a while, than to go down to the beach, feel the wind and spray, watch the moon slowly conjuncting Jupiter, and if we're lucky the occasional Leonid meteor.

Autumn on the Salish Sea, what could be more perfect?

Winter weather notice from NWS

Will post more about this later, but here's the NWS bulletin:
358 PM PST SUN NOV 14 2010

358 PM PST SUN NOV 14 2010





Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stability and Trim 101

Pop Quiz time!

When is it a good idea to try to correct a permanent list with variable and unpredictable cargo?

a) When the vessel will be typically sailing on a run with 6'+ seas and 30+ knot winds on the beam, such as a Washington State ferry on the Port Townsend to Coupeville run crossing Admiralty Inlet.

b) When the previous vessel on the same run was notorious for running with the car decks awash due to the sea state, thereby ensuring maximum free-surface effect.

c) When the last vessel of the same type and same name operating in the same state sank due to unseaworthiness. I'm not kidding

d) When hell freezes over.

To be fair, c) is less about stability and trim and more about superstition. But, still, really?

Why does the new state ferry list?
 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Should they call it the Chetzemoka or the "I-Lean"?
The state's much-celebrated new ferry, the m/v Chetzemoka, lists to one side due to the way the vessel was designed, according to the state ferry system.
Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Marta Coursey told Seattle PI the list is due to the location of a single stairway tower on one side. "When the ferry is fully loaded, there is no list," she said.
The Chetzemoka was designed to maximize the number of trucks and oversize vehicles it can carry, she said.
The Whidbey News-Times, which had a thorough report on the new $79 million boat, reports the list is noticeable enough that crew members have nicknamed it the "I-Lean."
The ferry service says the vessel is safe and has passed a "stability test" with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Full Article

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dark Matter 1, MOND 0

NASA recently used Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to chart the distribution of matter in the massive galaxy cluster Abell 1689. Part of what they found was that the cluster was much more dense in non-visible matter than anticipated, which was easily demonstrated by the actual amount of gravitational lensing observed relative to the apparent mass of the visible light portions of the cluster.

The article neglects to mention one very important result of this data: this may be the proverbial final nail in the coffin for Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), thereby eliminating the best and most reasonable alternative explanation for the discrepancy between Newtonian Dynamics and the observed rotation of galaxies, other than dark matter. It would be a stretch to say that this proves the existence of dark matter conclusively, but dark matter now stands as the unchallenged front-runner to explain the observed behavior of galaxies.

Kind of sad for that, I've been a big fan of MOND. But, that's how science works. 

From the NASA website:

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of a giant cosmic magnifying glass to create one of the sharpest and most detailed maps of dark matter in the universe. Dark matter is an invisible and unknown substance that makes up the bulk of the universe's mass.

The new dark matter observations may yield new insights into the role of dark energy in the universe's early formative years. The result suggests that galaxy clusters may have formed earlier than expected, before the push of dark energy inhibited their growth. A mysterious property of space, dark energy fights against the gravitational pull of dark matter. Dark energy pushes galaxies apart from one another by stretching the space between them, thereby suppressing the formation of giant structures called galaxy clusters. One way astronomers can probe this primeval tug-of-war is through mapping the distribution of dark matter in clusters.

A team led by Dan Coe at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., used Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to chart the invisible matter in the massive galaxy cluster Abell 1689, located 2.2 billion light-years away. The cluster's gravity, the majority of which comes from dark matter, acts like a cosmic magnifying glass, bending and amplifying the light from distant galaxies behind it. This effect, called gravitational lensing, produces multiple, warped, and greatly magnified images of those galaxies, like the view in a funhouse mirror. By studying the distorted images, astronomers estimated the amount of dark matter within the cluster. If the cluster's gravity only came from the visible galaxies, the lensing distortions would be much weaker.

Based on their higher-resolution mass map, Coe and his collaborators confirm previous results showing that the core of Abell 1689 is much denser in dark matter than expected for a cluster of its size, based on computer simulations of structure growth. Abell 1689 joins a handful of other well-studied clusters found to have similarly dense cores. The finding is surprising, because the push of dark energy early in the universe's history would have stunted the growth of all galaxy clusters.

"Galaxy clusters, therefore, would had to have started forming billions of years earlier in order to build up to the numbers we see today," Coe explains. "At earlier times, the universe was smaller and more densely packed with dark matter. Abell 1689 appears to have been well fed at birth by the dense matter surrounding it in the early universe. The cluster has carried this bulk with it through its adult life to appear as we observe it today."


The entire NASA article is here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Help reaches passengers on crippled cruise ship, but not in time to save AP reporter from egregious typo

Nov 9, 11:30 PM EST


SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The nearly 4,500 passengers and crew of the Carnival Splendor have no air conditioning or hot water. Running low on food, they have to eat canned crab meat and Spam dropped in by helicopters. And it will be a long, slow ride before they're home.
What began as a seven-day cruise to the picturesque Mexican Riviera stopped around sunrise Monday when an engine-room fire cut power to the 952-foot vessel and set it adrift off Mexico's Pacific coast.

The ship began moving again Tuesday night after the first of several Mexican tugboats en route to the stricken liner began pulling it toward San Diego, where it was expected to arrive Thursday night, Carnival Cruise Lines said in a statement.
U.S. Navy helicopters were ferrying 70,000 pounds of supplies, including the crab meat, croissants, Pop Tarts, Spam and other items, to the ship.
The Seahawk helicopters were taking off with dangling palettes of supplies from the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier diverted from training maneuvers to help. It arrived at the cruise ship late Tuesday.

I really, really hope she meant pallets...but not palates, that would be gruesome. Pilates, maybe?

Full Story

Monday, November 8, 2010

Spaceport: Kent

One of the most promising commercial space programs in the country is right here in King county. Blue Origin is the brainchild of Amazon (dot com) founder Jeff Bezos.

The front page of their website is a list of job announcements. So, if you happen to be (or want to be) in the Seattle area and want to be involved in what appears to be a very cool new space program, here's their posting. For the record, I am in no way affiliated with Amazon or Blue Origin, I just figured that some people who read this blog might actually be interested in the jobs posted here. No, I don't suspect that I'm the sort of Navigation and Control Engineer they're looking for. Alas. ;)


Blue Origin is hiring highly qualified and dedicated individuals. Our hiring bar is unabashedly extreme, and we insist on keeping our team size small. This means the person occupying each and every spot must be among the most technically gifted in his or her field. Other hiring criteria include:
  1. You must have a genuine passion for space. Without passion, you will find what we're trying to do too difficult. There are much easier jobs.
  2. You must want to work in a small company.
  3. We are building real hardware. This must excite you. You must be a builder.
Blue Origin's engineering and manufacturing teams work in a newly renovated 280,000 sq. ft. facility on 26 acres in Kent, Washington. We are just 20 minutes south of Seattle and 15 minutes from Sea-Tac airport. We also own and operate a launch complex in western Texas.

We have immediate openings for:

Future Openings:

No matter what openings are posted on this page, we are constantly reviewing resumes from talented individuals. Please feel free to forward your resume to us even if you do not qualify for one of the positions listed above. Our future holds many opportunities, and we will hold your information confidential.
To apply, please send a cover letter and electronic resume in text or PDF format to Blue Origin is an equal opportunity employer.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

100-Year Starship: Project Orion revisited

Recently Pete Worden of NASA's Ames Research Center ignited a flaming poop-storm when he announced, among other things, that NASA and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) had been allocated joint funding to study building a manned vessel which would take about 100 years to reach the nearest stars.

Almost immediately, commercial news outlets (notably Fox, but there were others) mangled this information into something incoherent and undecipherable, but definitely sinister.

Here's the actual (fairly innocuous) DARPA press release, in its entirety: 100-Year Starship

So let's unravel and debunk this mess. The first and most legitimate question that the media asked was, why DARPA? Answer number one is, DARPA gets funding easily. It's much easier to get project money earmarked through DARPA than through NASA or JPL. The second answer is that any vessel capable of getting to the nearest stars inside of a century can also get anywhere in the solar system Really Fast, and besides the obvious mundane applications for this, it could be our very best (and possibly only) hope of being able to intercept and deflect a large asteroid or comet from a collision with the earth. So, it legitimately counts as "defense", just not defense against a sentient enemy.

What is the "100-Year Starship"?

It is important to understand that when NASA talks about a 100-year starship, this is not new technology. In fact, the technology is older than the Mercury missions. That's not a typo: we had the ability to build a ship to the nearest stars four years before we launched Alan Shepard into space (and four years before the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into space, 23 days earlier than Shepard).

This was Project Orion. Orion was the brainchild of Stanislaw Ulam, Cornelius Everett and Freeman Dyson, although it is Dyson who will forever be credited as the father of this technology. Orion relied upon External Pulsed Plasma Propulsion (EPPP), also known as Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. EPPP is a nice and scientific way of saying, take a string of firecrackers and set them under an empty soup can and light them, and the soup can will fly all over the place; now we just need a really big soup can and a string of atomic bombs to light off under it. Instant starship, just add uranium.

The thing about Orion was, by virtue of being propelled by atomic bomb blasts, not only could the ship itself be big, it actually HAD to be big. Really big. As in, more internal space than a really good-sized container ship kind of big. Which, if you were going to be stuck in the thing for 90+ years, was probably for the best.

As originally envisioned and designed, Orion used a simple nuclear fission pulse, to attain a maximum speed of about 5% of the speed of light, or about 10,000 km/second. Compared to the Apollo or (now erstwhile) Constellation chemical rockets which maxed out at 12 km/second, or even solar sail technology which could theoretically attain 140 km/second, Orion seriously hauls ass.

At 10,000 km/second, Orion could travel from the earth to Jupiter and Europa in about 24 hours. From earth to Saturn, Enceladus and Titan would be about 30 hours. And yes, from earth to Alpha Centauri would take about 90 years.

If we had launched Orion in 1960 toward Alpha Centauri, it would be more than halfway there by now. All for about $24 billion, a little less than the combined cost of the Apollo missions.

Project Orion was canceled due to the Partial (nuclear) Test Ban Treaty of 1963. But the Cold War is over, and now (unlike in 1957) it is reasonable to conceive of building and launching such a vessel from orbit, rather than from the earth's surface, which has some serious problems. So, Orion is being quietly revisited. There are several newer versions of the Orion theme, such as the Gabriel Project, but the underlying technologies and principles are basically the same.

Here is the original (once Secret, now Unclassified thanks to FOIA) proposal for Project Orion, in its entirety. Project Orion 1957

Ad astra, babes.


One of my Zenith Maritime Academy students recommended a book to me about Freeman Dyson and Project Orion and Dyson's son George, whose work with redesigning the Aleutian Baidarka was nearly as groundbreaking as his father's. It's called The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower. It looks like a very cool read. Thanks, Barton!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Comet Hartley 2 Flyby

These photos are from the EPOXI spaceship's close flyby of comet Hartley 2 today. Comet Hartley 2 has been a bit of a disappointment visually from urban areas, but it has spawned some really beautiful low velocity meteors over the past several weeks, including one I blogged about recently (which I mistook for an Orionid).
Here's the NASA report. 

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA's EPOXI mission spacecraft successfully flew past comet Hartley 2 at 7 a.m. PDT (10 a.m. EDT) Thursday, Nov. 4. Scientists say initial images from the flyby provide new information about the comet's volume and material spewing from its surface.
"Early observations of the comet show that, for the first time, we may be able to connect activity to individual features on the nucleus," said EPOXI Principal Investigator Michael A'Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park. "We certainly have our hands full. The images are full of great cometary data, and that's what we hoped for."
EPOXI is an extended mission that uses the already in-flight Deep Impact spacecraft. Its encounter phase with Hartley 2 began at 1 p.m. PDT (4 p.m. EDT) on Nov. 3, when the spacecraft began to point its two imagers at the comet's nucleus. Imaging of the nucleus began one hour later.
"The spacecraft has provided the most extensive observations of a comet in history," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "Scientists and engineers have successfully squeezed world-class science from a re-purposed spacecraft at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of a new science project."
Images from the EPOXI mission reveal comet Hartley 2 to have 100 times less volume than comet Tempel 1, the first target of Deep Impact. More revelations about Hartley 2 are expected as analysis continues.
Initial estimates indicate the spacecraft was about 700 kilometers (435 miles) from the comet at the closest-approach point. That's almost the exact distance that was calculated by engineers in advance of the flyby.

Full Story

For those who wonder why NASA is spending so much money and effort determining the composition of comets and asteroids, this would be the answer. These two large asteroids passed well within the moon's orbit on the same day, September 8th of this year. Knowing as much as we can about asteroids and comets should be one of our very top priorities as a society. If you don't believe me, just ask a dinosaur.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Very cool maritime project!

The citizen scientists over at Zooniverse have developed a project especially suited for Strait of Magellan readers. It's called "Old Weather", and it specifically entails culling through World War One era ship's logs for weather data. These transcriptions will contribute to climate model projections and improve a database of weather extremes. Historians will use your work to track past ship movements and the stories of the people on board. 

What could possibly be cooler for an armchair sailor or meteorologist than to be able to access real ship's logs and turn them into real usable data for climate modeling? 

Old Ship Weather Project

Freighter captain jailed for driving ship drunk. And, his charts weren't corrected and up to date.

VANCOUVER SUN, 31 October 2010

The captain of a South Korean freighter was sentenced to jail in Tacoma, Wash., last week for commanding his 590-foot vessel through U.S. waters in the Juan de Fuca Strait while drunk.
Capt. Seong Ug Sin was arrested this spring, when a U.S. Coast Guard inspection crew found him drunk at the helm of the 20,763-tonne freighter, the U.S. State Attorney’s Office said in a release. Coast guard inspectors tried to board the STX Daisy from a small inflatable boat during high swells in the early morning hours of April 14. Sin was reportedly not co-operative. Upon boarding, the inspectors found Sin to be without proper records or a usable chart of Puget Sound, his intended destination. They also smelled alcohol on his breath.

Full Article

Navigation vs Theology

This is Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, passing under the Storebaelt Bridge in Denmark. Allure, along with her sister ship Oasis of the Seas, is the largest cruise ship ever built, 360 meters (1181') long, 225,000 gross tons. That's larger than any aircraft carrier built by any navy, surpassed only by the container ship Emma Maersk and the (no longer in service) supertanker Knock Nevis.

After having lowered all of her masts and antennas, and retracting her retractable funnels, picking the one moment of lowest low water for the week and coming in at a full bell to maximize squatting, they cleared the bridge by about a foot. And then were proud of themselves for it.

Let's review, kiddies! Our tide tables are generated from gathering 19 years of data (the sun/moon/earth metonic cycle) and projecting that data forward in time. Actually in most cases this is now developed from an extrapolation of the observed tidal harmonics over a period of several months, but the point is the same; computed tides are merely a (reasonable) assumption that the height of tide will be about the same at the same point in any given 19 year metonic cycle. And, that's pretty much all the tide tables account for. They do NOT account for things like atmospheric pressure, wind, rain, sea state, whether or not some dam has opened a spillway upstream, or any other of the countless things which can effect the actual height of tide at a given moment.

Maximum speed for the Allure is 20 knots, or about 23 mph. All of her soft bendy bits had already been lowered, so if she had hit the bridge at that speed it would have been structural parts of the ship doing so. That much kinetic energy hitting the center span of a suspension bridge isn't going to end well.

UPDATE and EDIT: I had originally lambasted the master, mate and pilot of the Allure for even attempting this. However, Captain Boucher of the excellent Nautical Log blog informs me that for this particular delivery from the shipyard there truly was no other option for them. So I must humbly apologize to the bridge crew of the Allure of the Sea. And to the naval architects who designed her, I offer the only wisdom I can about shipbuilding generally: "measure twice, cut once"!

Thank you, Captain Boucher!

The full story is here: A Bridge Too Low 



When I originally posted this, I gave it a title that I thought was funny, and which implied that if prayer was a part of one's navigation plan that maybe they were cutting their tolerances too close. But, based on the number of hits this particular story has garnered (more than all of the other posts here combined), apparently a lot of people actually did want to read about theology as it relates to navigation. So at the beginning of last month I wrote what I hope will be my first, last and only post on the subject of religion. Here it is:

God, Science, the Universe and Everything