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Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Year in Review


2010 draws to a close.

I can't actually reflect on all of 2010, because this blog is, believe it or not, only 11 weeks old. My first post here was on the 16th of October. The bigger "believe it or not" is that when I woke up on the 16th of October starting a new blog was the farthest thing from my mind. It was a Saturday, and it happened that it was the Fall 2010 meeting for the Zenith Maritime Academy instructors in the Pacific Northwest region. It happens that one of the other instructors is my friend and co-conspirator Captain Richard Rodrigeuz, who in addition to imparting his wisdom at his school up in Friday Harbor and rescuing damsels in distress (well, okay, some of the boats he rescues happen to have damsels on them) writes Bitter End, probably the best maritime blog in the Pacific Northwest. At some point during the day Richard said something like "you should write a maritime blog, too"; and, well, here we are.

The intention was to create a maritime blog which was a bit more focused on navigation and weather than many of them, specifically focusing on celestial navigation because that's sort of my field of expertise. On the banner I stated that Strait of Magellan would be "A small blog for marine navigation, astronomy, space exploration, meteorology, boating and matters pertaining to maritime education and the maritime industry". My first post dealt specifically with the use of lunar distances to obtain UTC for navigation, which I thought would tie-in the topics of navigation and astronomy nicely and set the tone for the blog. In the weeks since then, the posts have been split between roughly 60% "nautical stuff" and 40% "space stuff", which was just about my intention. Ironically, I posted about Lunars again last night. I sense a theme.

I'm a bit surprised at which of the posts are being read, and who's reading them.
With the exception of one obvious outlier (which I will address presently) the overwhelmingly largest number of "hits" for any story posted here was for "Iron Lisa and the Arsenic Prokaryotes", about the work Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team at Mono Lake, CA with arsenic-based halobacteria. A lot of the traffic for that came from people searching directly for stories about her, and the fact that I used the nickname she's best known by steered lots of her fans to my blog. I think it's pretty cool that in this day an exobiologist has groupies. And, by the way, she can play the hell out of an oboe. Again, many kudos to Dr Wolfe-Simon and her team.

The second most popular post was a small discussion of meteorologist Edward Lorenz and the Butterfly Effect, and a very brief introduction to chaos physics. The third most popular post, which I had hoped would be the single most popular, was 100-Year Starship, which discussed the recent re-ignition of Project Orion at NASA. Given all of the recent (and misguided, I think) grumbling about the cancellation of Constellation, I thought that addressing some of the very cool things the 2010 and 2011 programs are actually focusing on would be beneficial. Apparently a lot of you agreed. I'm probably going to do another post discussing Constellation specifically, in the fairly near future.

The list goes on like that, with a lot of people also following my ten-part (or thereabouts) series on outmigration and solar system colonization. Eight of the top-ten stories of the whole blog were science stories. But with the exception of the Iron Lisa fan-club, very little of my traffic came from other science blogs.

The vast majority came from other maritime blogs, most notably Nautical Log, and Bitter End, which started this whole thing in the first place. I had assumed that I would get maritime people interested in the maritime posts and space-science people interested in the space-science posts. Instead, for the most part, I've had a really large number of maritime people interested in the space-science posts. Which is somewhat ironic, because presenting science to sailors has always kind of been my gig. My classroom students of course all know that, but it's also true on the water. For several years I worked on an ocean-going tug, and I used to pepper the magazine rack in the crew's mess (which generally was filled with things like Guns and Ammo, Field and Steam, and Road and Track) with things like Sky and Telescope (because it had an "and" in the middle, too), Astronomy and Scientific American. One midnight watch I came down to the crew's mess and found one of the tankermen reading Physics World or something. He looked up at me and said "this article on Higgs-Bosons is real interesting", and went back to reading. I knew then my work on that boat was done.

So, here we continue.

I mentioned earlier the "outlier", and I want to address it now. One post, from the 1st of November, garnered more "hits" than the next seven busiest posts combined. It shouldn't have; it was a fairly mundane post about a cruise ship making the decision to come under a bridge at a full bell, with less than 9" of clearance. The title of the post was simply meant to convey the idea that if "pray real hard" is part of your navigation plan, you're cutting your tolerances too close. But the title of the post was "Navigation vs Theology", which was only meant to be mildly humorous. But apparently religion is a lot more interesting to more people than either boating or science, so I got lots and lots of hits on that particular post. I just checked, and even today, almost two months later, I have more hits for that post than any other today. So I guess if I really wanted a lot more traffic, I could just post about religion on a regular basis, but I'm not going to. I will however make a single post on the subject of religion and science, which will hopefully answer some of the questions I get on the subject. I'll post that one tomorrow, for New Year's day. It'll be grand. And then I'm probably not going to post anything on religion again.

At least as interesting to me as what posts people are reading is, who's reading them. Being a maritime blog based in Seattle, and seeing that many of these posts are focused on weather and other maritime issues for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and te Salish Sea as a whole, I assumed that the majority of the readership would come from the US and Canada. The US does lead, but just barely. Canada is a far distant third. But the number two country for readership, just a hair's breadth away from the US, is Japan. I have to assume that my Japanese readers are mostly interested in the astronomy and space-science posts, because I can't imagine that reading weather analyses from 8000 miles away could be very interesting!

Finally, I'd like to extend my gratitude to Richard Rodriguez for inspiring this mess, Captain John Baird of the esteemed Cody Steamship and Navigation Company for his endless trove of marginal maritime advice, all of the Zenith Maritime instructors, students and alumni, Dr David Burch at Starpath School of Navigation for being my mentor and inspiration for all of these many years, Scott, Greg, Laura and Amanda at Windworks for making the classes happen (because I sure as hell couldn't do them as well on my own!), and the crews and staff of Victoria Clipper, for everything. And mostly I'd like to thank my beautiful family, who put up with my blogging and general geekiness in spite of it all.

Many thousand thanks, tapadh leibh and domo arigato.

Here's to 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Excellent Lunar Distance Link

Here's a link to a website with some amazingly cool on-line calculators for lunar distance applications. I've long been a fan of the Bruce Stark tables for clearing the lunar distance to obtain UTC (Universal Coordinated Time, previously called GMT) at sea, but they are admittedly a bit arcane, and require tables and forms not typically carried for routine celestial navigation. For emergency navigation I've long preferred David Burch's lunar altitude method, which utilized both standard sight-reduction methods and standard sextant observations to derive UTC. Because if you're in a lifeboat and your only source of UTC is the moon, you probably don't actually have the means of clearing lunar distances with you, unless you happen to have the calculations for such already loaded onto a programmable calculator like StarPilot



This website has a number of calculators both for clearing lunar distances and predicting them. It's this latter which I think is huge. Because other than a hobbyist, nobody who has access to the internet is going to be sighting the moon and a star with a sextant to determine what time it is. But if you can look at your planned route before a voyage and precompute a number of lunar distances for each day of your journey, then with the addition of a perpetual almanac such as the Kolbe tables you effectively have a wholly self-contained system of navigation to cross an ocean without reliance on any external source. And, by having the lunar distances precomputed, instead of doing all (or any!) of the computations typically needed, you just dial in the correct distance into your sextant, point and wait. When the moon kisses the other object, mark the time on your hack-watch, and then you know the difference between it and UTC for all of the rest of your celestial sights for that day. Pretty darned cool.

Here's the link, and if this happens to be your website, great work and thank you!!

Longitude by Lunars

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Earth Biodiversity Pattern May Trace Back to Bobbing Solar System Path

Most discussions of cosmic ray extinction events focus on nearby gamma-ray burster supernova events, which will likely be the subject of an upcoming post here. The article below, however, examines a completely different possibility. The sun's path around the Milky Way galaxy periodically places it in direct exposure to cosmic rays from the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. The periodicity of this event is 62 million years, which seems to coincide strikingly well with the periodicity of terrestrial biodiversity. Note that this does not coincide with the 27 million year periodicity of the Oort body extinction events. The latter are very rapid occurrences, whereas the former take place on the scale of millions of years.

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SPACE.COM--- A puzzlingly regular waxing and waning of Earth's biodiversity may ultimately trace back to our solar system's bobbing path around the Milky Way, a new study suggests.
Every 60 million years or so, two things happen, roughly in synch: The solar system peeks its head to the north of the average plane of our galaxy's disk, and the richness of life on Earth dips noticeably.
Researchers had hypothesized that the former process drives the latter, via an increased exposure to high-energy subatomic particles called cosmic rays coming from intergalactic space. That radiation might be helping to kill off large swaths of the creatures on Earth, scientists say.
The new study lends credence to that idea, putting some hard numbers on possible radiation exposures for the first time. When the solar system pops its head out, radiation doses at the Earth's surface shoot up, perhaps by a factor of 24, researchers found.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Nemesis, Nibiru, and the Gregorian Short Count

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the existence of a trans-Neptunian object somewhere within the sun's gravity which periodically causes havoc on earth.

So, as we near the very end of the Gregorian Short Count (and hence, the end of the world) on Friday, it seems like as good a time as any to discuss such things.

Let's review, then.

1. There probably is an object, most likely a red dwarf or brown dwarf star, which is a dim companion of our sun. It exists somewhere just outside the Oort cloud, between 0.8 and 1.5 light years from the sun. If it is a red dwarf then it is almost certainly a star we have already identified and cataloged, but have not yet realized its proximity. The WISE orbital telescope is currently scanning all such candidates to determine which one is our nearby neighbor.

2. The object is named Nemesis by most astronomers, but some have proposed naming it Tyche instead.

3. The orbit of Nemesis is such that every 27 million years or so it disrupts portions of the Oort cloud in such a way as to send some number of Oort comets into the inner solar system. This 27 million year period seems to coincide with the periodicity of mass extinction events on earth. The most recent extinction event typically attributed to Nemesis cometary activity was the Middle Miocene Extinction about 14.5 million years ago.This means that the next Nemesis extinction event is likely to occur some 12.5 million years in the future.
Artist's conception of Nemesis, seen from orbiting debris field

And then there is Nibiru, which is a large planet predicted by Nancy Lieder to collide (or nearly collide) with earth on 21 December 2012. Nancy Lieder is an accomplished astronomer who successfully predicted in 1997 that comet Hale-Bopp was really a star, and that a planet called Planet X would pass near by earth on 27 May 2003, stopping the earth's rotation for nine days, shifting the earth's magnetic pole toward the magnetic pole of Planet X and causing the earth's tectonic plates to flip over like pancakes. Boy, well do I remember that day! Luckily for me I had already built my house on the bottom of one of the tectonic plates, so when the North American plate inverted itself I actually ended up with a pretty nice piece of real-estate. But, I digress.
Anyway, it's the very same Nancy Lieder who has now predicted that her Planet X is really Zechariah Sitchin's Nibiru, and that its next closest point of approach with earth will coincide with the end of the Mayan Long Count, at the December solstice of 2012. Because the world always ends when the calender runs out, just like it will on Friday night. And it all must be true, because it's already been made into a major motion picture.

Okay, so, let's look at Nibiru for a minute. Oh right we can't, because, um, it's, you know...

1) Too close to see. It's orbit is eccentric but it's still in orbit around the sun. It's going to pass close enough to the earth to have a profound gravitational effect on it. And we know the date of CPA with earth, 21 December 2012. We know the speed it has to be traveling in each part of its orbit (thank you, Johannes Kepler!) so we can determine pretty easily that by now Nibiru must be somewhere inside the orbit of Mars. We know that Nibiru is a "large planet" from both Lieder and Sitchin, presumably significantly larger than Mars. Nibiru should be the third brightest object in the sky right now, after only the sun and the moon. Since Venus is occasionally visible in broad daylight, Nibiru should be visible in broad daylight all the time, and brilliant enough at night to read a newspaper headline by. All of this assumes a planet a little bigger than earth or Venus, but most of the drawings I've seen seem to indicate that Nibiru is about as large as Saturn. An object as large as Saturn inside Mar's orbit would appear...huge. Maybe it's so huge we just mistake it for the sky itself!

2) Visible only from the south pole. Just like Polaris, which is only visible from the north pole...no, wait, that's stupid.

3) Hiding behind the sun. First off, our solar telescope satellites would have already seen it, and second, the only orbit which would keep it behind the sun for any length of time is in earth's orbit but on exactly the opposite side of the sun. Which is conceivable, but then it will never get here. Certainly not by 2012.

OR

4) It doesn't exist.

HINT: Pick number 4!!!!!!

Now, here's my bitch with all of this. In this year, 2010, there have been a large number of truly amazing astronomical discoveries. Felisa Wolfe-Simon's discovery of arsenic-based life, or Gurzadyan and Penrose's discovery of "fossils" from before the Big Bang and beyond our universe, probably top the list. Both of those are huge, in different ways. But outside of space-geek blogs like this one, nobody really reports on these discoveries. But just now I was able to get THREE AND A HALF MILLION HITS for "Nibiru" on Google.

The mind fawking reels.

Vigor Industrial to Acquire Todd Shipbuilding

Todd Shipyards Corp and Vigor Industrial LLC announced that they have entered into a definitive agreement under which Vigor will acquire the stock of Todd for $22.27 per share, or approximately $130m. The transaction is structured as an all cash tender offer. Under the terms of the agreement, which has been unanimously approved by Todd’s board of directors, Vigor will offer to purchase all outstanding shares of Todd’s common stock for $22.27 in cash per share. This represents a premium of 31% over the average closing price of Todd’s common stock during the three month period ended December 21, 2010. The price of Todd’s stock has climbed steadily during the year from a low of $13.98 to its recent 52 week high closing price of $21.00. The tender offer is scheduled to commence no later than December 30, 2010 and will expire on January 28, 2011 unless extended. The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of 2011.

“We are pleased about the addition of Todd to the Vigor family,” said Frank Foti, the President of Vigor. “Todd is Puget Sound’s leading shipyard and the combination of Vigor and Todd will create the largest and most capable marine services company in the Pacific Northwest. This transaction will be good for the customers and employees of both companies and will broaden our capabilities. The combination of resources and capabilities will allow the combined companies to expand both the scope and capacity of their ship repair and new construction business.”

“This transaction is a testament to the excellent work Todd has done to revitalize our business. Not only is this transaction good for our stockholders, but it’s good for the shipyard and our employees,” said Stephen G. Welch, President and Chief Executive Officer of Todd. “We believe that the addition of Todd’s products to Vigor will help create a stronger, more diversified company with long-term advantages for both companies’ customers and employees.”

Todd’s management will remain intact and all contracts will remain in place. The acquisition will allow for stable utilization of facilities while continuing to strengthen the combined companies’ industry presence and opportunities for growth.

Full Story

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Before the Big Bang, and Beyond the Universe

Not very many years ago the title of this post would have been oxymoronic. There was no "before" the Big Bang, and no "beyond" the universe; the Big Bang defined the beginning of Time and the universe defined the limits of Space.


This month, for the first time, astronomers studying patterns in the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) have discovered artifacts both from before the Big Bang and beyond this universe. At least four other universes have "bumped" into our own. The images below are of "bruises" in the CMB of our own universe. 


By rights this announcement should be as big, or bigger than the Copernican Revolution, which first proved that Earth was not the center of the Universe. But only 90 years ago it was still scientifically accepted that the sun was at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which was the only galaxy and therefore the entire universe (the other observable galaxies being mistaken for small nebulae within the Milky Way). The Shapley-Curtis debate in 1920 marked the beginning of our present understanding of the cosmos. Heber Curtis correctly surmised that the Andromeda "nebula" and others were in fact "island universes"; separate galaxies unto themselves. Harlow Shapley, for his part, correctly surmised that rather than inhabiting the exalted real estate of the center of the galaxy, the Sun actually exists far away from the center of the galaxy. We now know that the sun is in the Orion-Cygnus spur, not even one of the major galactic Spiral Arms.    


So, within a human lifetime, we have been relocated within the collective conscious from the center of the universe to a speck in some galactic backwater in only one of countless billions of galaxies. So perhaps the further relocation from a single universe with a unique beginning to just one of countless universes just doesn't seem that important to anyone other than astronomers and physicists. That's okay. I still think it's pretty damned cool.


Here's the story from the Daily Mail:  Cosmic Bruises

Here's the original paper, and a response to another group of researchers who were able to reproduce the data but didn't agree with the original team's conclusions.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dragon Spacecraft Returns to Earth: now just 20 more years to the DC-3

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft successfully returned to earth, bringing us one giant leap closer to a commercial replacement for NASA's Space Shuttle program. This, along with the impending completion of Spaceport America and similar advances from a number of other companies, really heralds the beginning of an entirely new phase of space exploration.

For comparison, the first scheduled commercial airline flight in the United States was in 1914. The Ford/Stout Trimotor became the first successful commercial airliner in 1925. Boeing built the first 237 in 1933, followed by the Douglas DC-3 in 1935. 16,079 DC-3s were built, and a surprisingly large number of them remain in service to this day. It was, and is, one hell of an airplane.

If this is any reasonable indication, commercial civilian space travel could be commonplace and affordable by 2030. We just need somebody to invent a spacefaring equivalent of the DC-3.




DC-3: A collection of parts flying in loose formation


CAPE CANAVERAL -- On December 8, SpaceX became the first commercial company in history to re-enter a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX launched its Dragon spacecraft into orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:43 AM EST from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Dragon spacecraft orbited the Earth at speeds greater than 7,600 meters per second (17,000 miles per hour), reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, and landed just after 2:00 PM EST less than one mile from the center of the targeted landing zone in the Pacific Ocean.

This marks the first time a commercial company has successfully recovered a spacecraft reentering from Earth orbit. It is a feat previously performed by only six nations or government agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.
As the very first flight under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, COTS Demo 1 followed a nominal flight profile that included a roughly 9.5-minute ascent, two Earth-orbits, reentry and splashdown. Falcon 9 delivered Dragon to orbit with an inclination of 34.53 degrees—a near bull’s-eye insertion.

Dragon’s first-ever on-orbit performance was 100% successful in meeting test objectives including maintaining attitude, thermal control, and communication activities. While in orbit, eight free-flying payloads were successfully deployed, including a U.S. Army nanosatellite—the first Army-built satellite to fly in 50 years.

Liftoff marked the second flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which performed nominally during ascent. Nine Merlin engines, which generate one million pounds of thrust in vacuum, powered the first phase of flight. The rocket reached maximum dynamic pressure (the point at which aerodynamic stress on a spacecraft in atmospheric flight is maximized, also known as Max Q) approximately 1.5 minutes after launch. The first stage separation occurred a little over three minutes into flight. The single Merlin Vacuum engine of Falcon 9’s second stage then ignited to continue carrying the vehicle towards its targeted orbit.

Dragon’s PICA-X heat shield protected the spacecraft during reentry from temperatures reaching more than 3,000 degrees F. SpaceX worked closely with NASA to develop PICA-X, a SpaceX variant of NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) heat shield.
SpaceX chose PICA for its proven ability. In January 2006, NASA’s Stardust sample capsule returned using a PICA heat shield and set the record for the fastest reentry speed of a spacecraft into Earth's atmosphere — experiencing speeds of 28,900 miles per hour.

NASA made its expertise and specialized facilities available to SpaceX as the company designed, developed and qualified the 3.6 meter PICA-X shield it in less than 4 years at a fraction of the cost NASA had budgeted for the effort. The result is the most advanced heat shield ever to fly. It can potentially be used hundreds of times for Earth orbit reentry with only minor degradation each time — as proven on this flight — and can even withstand the much higher heat of a moon or Mars velocity reentry.

At about 10,000 feet, Dragon’s three main parachutes, each 116 feet in diameter, deployed to slow the spacecraft's decent to approximately 16-18 ft/sec, ensuring a comfortable return ride that will be required for manned flights. Oversized parachutes are critical in ensuring a safe landing for crew members. Even if Dragon were to lose one of its main parachutes, the two remaining chutes would still ensure a
safe landing.

This was the first flight under NASA’s COTS program to develop commercial resupply services to the International Space Station. After the Space Shuttle retires, SpaceX will fly at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract for NASA. The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft were designed to one day carry astronauts; both the COTS and CRS missions will yield valuable flight experience toward this goal.

With recovery of the Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX became the first company in history to successfully re-enter a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX has only come this far by building upon the incredible achievements of NASA, having NASA as an anchor tenant for launch, and receiving expert advice and mentorship throughout the development process.

SpaceX would like to extend a special thanks to the NASA COTS office for their continued support and guidance throughout this process. The COTS program has demonstrated the power of a true private/public partnership and we look forward to the exciting endeavors our team will accomplish in the future.

============================

The entire story, and lots more pictures, is here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tempest in a Teacup

The two Koreas have been "on the brink of war", or at least, on the brink of rekindling an existing war which had burned down to embers, since the Armistice was signed in 1953. So, the fact that we again find the Koreas rattling their respective sabers is not altogether surprising. North Korea has been spoiling for a fight for decades. What makes this period of time potentially different is that subsequent to the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea is now spoiling for war even more than the North. Which, I imagine, was the point of the attacks.

Last week New Mexico's governor Bill Richardson met with North Korea to try to "turn it down a notch", and it seems he may have succeeded. South Korea carried out its previously scheduled military exercises this week, and as of this writing North Korea has responded only with more of the same rhetoric they've been spouting for years. This may be as much of a stand-down as we can hope for at this point. If the two Koreas revert to hurling harsh words at each other instead of ordnance, that's more than fine in my book. Absolutely no good can come of Korea's personal cold-war turning hot. It is almost impossible to imagine some 20,000,000 troops engaged in combat on a peninsula only a little bigger than Florida, the South armed with some of the most technologically advanced war machines in the world and the North armed only with 1950's vintage Soviet-era relics, but lots and lots of them. And chemical, biological and atomic weapons.
We can only hope that diplomacy, or at the very least a somewhat enlightened sense of self-preservation, will keep the tinder box from being sparked.

North Korean Romeo class attack submarine


South Korean Sohn-Wonyil class attack submarine

Gale Warning East Entrance Strait of Juan de Fuca

Synopsis...A 984 MB LOW ABOUT 320 NM SW OF THE QUEEN CHARLOTTES WILL REMAIN QUASISTATIONARY OFF THE BRITISH COLUMBIA COAST THROUGH FRI. THIS COMBINED WITH HIGHER PRES E OF THE CASCADES WILL RESULT IN STRONG SE FLOW ACROSS MUCH OF THE AREA THROUGH FRI. MEANWHILE...EXPECT A COLD FRONT TO STALL OVER THE COASTAL WATERS ON FRI BEFORE WEAKENING THIS WEEKEND.

Late Afternoon: SE wind around 35 kt, with gusts as high as 46 kt. A chance of rain. Wind waves around 8 ft.

Tonight: SE wind 31 to 35 kt, with gusts as high as 46 kt. A chance of rain. Wind waves around 8 ft.

Here's a graph of the recent wind gust speeds at Smith Island.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ice Volcanoes on Titan

Not quite as cool as the beer volcanoes in the Pastafarian version of heaven, but still pretty cool.


NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found possible ice volcanoes on Saturn's moon Titan that are similar in shape to those on Earth that spew molten rock.

Topography and surface composition data have enabled scientists to make the best case yet in the outer solar system for an Earth-like volcano landform that erupts in ice. The results were presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

"When we look at our new 3-D map of Sotra Facula on Titan, we are struck by its resemblance to volcanoes like Mt. Etna in Italy, Laki in Iceland and even some small volcanic cones and flows near my hometown of Flagstaff," said Randolph Kirk, who led the 3-D mapping work, and is a Cassini radar team member and geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Scientists have been debating for years whether ice volcanoes, also called cryovolcanoes, exist on ice-rich moons, and if they do, what their characteristics are. The working definition assumes some kind of subterranean geological activity warms the cold environment enough to melt part of the satellite’s interior and sends slushy ice or other materials through an opening in the surface. Volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and Earth spew silicate lava.

Some cryovolcanoes bear little resemblance to terrestrial volcanoes, such as the tiger stripes at Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where long fissures spray jets of water and icy particles that leave little trace on the surface. At other sites, eruption of denser materials might build up volcanic peaks or finger-like flows. But when such flows were spotted on Titan in the past, theories explained them as non-volcanic processes, such as rivers depositing sediment. At Sotra, however, cryovolcanism is the best explanation for two peaks more than 3,000 feet high with deep volcanic craters and finger-like flows.

Full Story

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Yule, and Seattle Astronomy

The big seas on the Strait yesterday meant that I was stuck in Victoria, which as far as such things go is a pretty good place to be stuck. Around 11pm the eclipse was about 70%, visible only occasionally through the breaks in the clouds. We got a small bit of a weather window about that time, so we lit off the main engines, threw off our mooring lines and made a run for the border. We still had maybe 35 knots of wind and steep seas up to about 6', but much, much better than what we'd had on the northbound leg yesterday morning. By the time the eclipse was total it was only occasionally visible as a somewhat lighter patch in the dark clouds. By the time we got to Point Wilson it was raining, which continued through the night. We did get one very brief peek at the moon as it was coming out of the eclipse, but that was about it. My wife, who was here in Seattle, was leading a low-tide beach walk, and they were able to watch the eclipse for a longer time before the rain socked in.

I went out this afternoon to see the sun as it kissed the Tropic of Capricorn today around 3:38pm local, but the sky was remarkably uniformly gray. Usually you can at least guess form the shadows or a lighter patch of the sky where the sun might be, but today was not such a day. Tomorrow morning we'll get up to watch the sunrise of the longest night from the Admiral overlook, or at least watch the sky turn from dark ray to light gray. It is, you know, a Seattle tradition.
 

Happy Yule, y'all.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dark Side of the Moon, and a Pop-Quiz

Tomorrow night's full lunar eclipse should prove spectacular, should we be fortunate enough to see it. Here's the timeline of the eclipse, both in Universal (Greenwich) Time and Pacific Standard Time. Especially cool is the fact that the maximum eclipse will happen at a longitude of 124° 04' W, about the longitude of Cape Disappointment and the Columbia River bar, and the Olympic Mountains.

Penumbral Eclipse Begins:       05:29:17 UT    21:29:17 PST (9:29:17pm Monday)
Partial Eclipse Begins:             06:32:37 UT    22:32:37 PST (10:32:37pm Monday)
Total Eclipse Begins:               07:40:47 UT    23:40:47 PST (11:40:47pm Monday)
Maximum Eclipse:                   08:16:57 UT    00:16:57 PST (12:16:57am Tuesday)
Total Eclipse Ends:                  08:53:08 UT    00:53:08 PST (12:53:08am Tuesday)
Partial Eclipse Ends:                10:01:20 UT    02:01:20 PST (2:01:20am Tuesday)
Penumbral Eclipse Ends:         11:04:31 UT     03:04:31 PST (3:04:31am Tuesday)

So, if you happen to be out tide-pooling  in Seattle tomorrow evening, if the weather should happen to cooperate (it doesn't look promising) you'll have an amazing eclipse to look for octopi and sea stars under.



The low tide in Seattle tomorrow evening is -2.1ft at 22:13 (10:13pm) PST.

So, here's the pop-quiz, for my Celestial Navigation students and for anyone else who happens to be following this. If you happen to be especially brave you can post your answers in the Comments, or you can just email me if you like. The first person to get both questions right will get, I don't know, I'll find something cool to send you. The first question should be pretty easy for for anyone with a rudimentary understanding of celestial navigation or astronomy. The second is rather more esoteric. Here goes:

1) The lunar eclipse is happening the day before the December solstice. I've already given the Greenwich Hour Angle of the moon at this time; what is the declination of the moon at the time of the eclipse? Don't look it up, just think about it. Answers within a degree count, answers within an arc-minute tell me you probably cheated!

2) The low tide quoted was measured at 122° 20' W (Pier 55 in Elliott Bay), so the moon's meridian transit of Seattle will happen about seven minutes before the maximum eclipse, about 00:10 (12:10am) PST, about two hours after the low tide. So, for all intents and purposes, the sun and the moon are on Seattle's meridian at roughly the time of the lowest low tide. Bowditch (and every other navigation text) tells us that at this time the tide should be at or near high. How is it possible that the tide in Seattle is almost exactly perpendicular to the moon and sun's gravity?

Enjoy!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Never tell me the odds.

In our discussion of possible new locations for human habitation in the solar system, I neglected one candidate which bears consideration. Especially given the fact that Saturn's tiny moon Enceladus "made the cut", the dwarf planet Ceres should at least be considered.


We don't know a great deal about Ceres, yet. We will know a great deal more in February of 2015 when the Dawn spacecraft arrives there, after its flyby of Vesta. Here's what we do know, compared to Enceladus:

                                      Ceres                                          Enceladus          

Size (Diameter)              943 km                                         504 km
Gravity                           0.03g                                            0.01g
Distance from Earth       250,000,000 km                            1,500,000,000 km

So, Ceres is about twice the diameter of Enceladus, with three times the gravity (although it is still minute: a 200 lb person on Ceres would weigh 6 lbs on Ceres as opposed to 2 lbs on Enceladus), and Ceres is about five and a half times closer than Enceladus. Like Enceladus and Callisto, Ceres has water ice on her surface and likely liquid water below this. Unlike Enceladus, Ceres also has substantial amounts of carbonaceous rock on its surface, which could potentially be utilized as building materials. 

Star Wars fans may balk at the idea of establishing a colony or outpost in the middle of an asteroid field, but the asteroid population of the Main Belt is actually quite sparse, and the asteroids are all orbiting the sun in similar ways so that the relative motion of any two adjacent Main Belt asteroids is very small. The greater risk is from solar radiation, which Ceres, unlike the surfaces of Enceladus or Callisto, is completely unprotected from by Saturn's or Jupiter's magnetospheres.

So, for all intents and purposes, Ceres completes the list of likely candidates for human settlement in the solar system in the near future.

For the record, See Threepio was a pessimist. The actual odds of a spaceship accidentally colliding with an asteroid in the Main Belt are less than one in one billion.

Black Hole Plums

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has unveiled a previously unseen structure centered in the Milky Way. The feature spans 50,000 light-years and may be the remnant of an eruption from a supersized black hole at the center of our galaxy.

"What we see are two gamma-ray-emitting bubbles that extend 25,000 light-years north and south of the galactic center," said Doug Finkbeiner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., who first recognized the feature. "We don't fully understand their nature or origin."


The structure spans more than half of the visible sky, from the constellation Virgo to the constellation Grus, and it may be millions of years old. A paper about the findings has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Finkbeiner and his team discovered the bubbles by processing publicly available data from Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT). The LAT is the most sensitive and highest-resolution gamma-ray detector ever launched. Gamma rays are the highest-energy form of light.

Other astronomers studying gamma rays hadn't detected the bubbles partly because of a fog of gamma rays that appears throughout the sky. The fog happens when particles moving near the speed of light interact with light and interstellar gas in the Milky Way. The LAT team constantly refines models to uncover new gamma-ray sources obscured by this so-called diffuse emission. By using various estimates of the fog, Finkbeiner and his colleagues were able to isolate it from the LAT data and unveil the giant bubbles.

Full Story

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Reason for the Season

Before I discovered Blogspot I did my web logging on something called Live Journal, which was a bit less of a weblog than this but somewhat less of a social networking thing than Facebook. One of the things I did on my Live Journal page was compute and post astronomical data for the various solstices and equinoxes and other holidays for those who cared about such things.

Now, thanks to the excellent website maintained by the US Naval Observatory, I no longer have to actually compute anything; they do it all for us. But I'm going to continue the tradition anyway, as there are some folks following Strait of Magellan now who used to follow my old Live Journal page for times of upcoming astronomical events.


So, the solstice next week will be at 23:38 UTC on Tuesday 21 December 2010, which is 15:38 (3:38pm) pst. Sunset that day will be at 16:20 (4:20pm) pst in Seattle, that night will be the longest of the year, and the solstice sunrise will be at 07:55 pst the next morning. 

Happy Yule!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Boat horror kills up to 50 at Christmas Island

The Australian: 

Up to 50 asylum-seekers are feared drowned after their boat was smashed on to cliffs at Christmas Island.
Authorities believe the boat was in a desperate, night-time dash for safety.
As rescuers last night continued to scour the ocean for survivors after the worst known loss of asylum-seekers' lives at sea since the SIEV X tragedy in October 2001, sources told The Australian it appeared the boat's attempts to reach the island's only safe harbour in mountainous seas tragically helped them avoid detection.

The first authorities knew of the wooden fishing boat was when it appeared out of the pre-dawn darkness.
Officials told The Australian the Indonesian boat, believed to be carrying about 70 Iraqi and Iranian asylum-seekers, was not under constant surveillance, although it may have been detected earlier on its journey. They said it appeared the boat tried to make it to Flying Fish Cove overnight, meaning it was harder to detect for the regular navy and Customs patrols.
Sources said the boat's dawn arrival was a "huge surprise" to authorities, with the navy and Customs vessels forced to go to the lee side of the island.
As soon as the danger to the vessel became apparent, the navy patrol boat HMAS Pirie and the Customs vessel Triton launched fast, rigid inflatable boats. But they had to travel several kilometres through 5m seas before reaching the stricken vessel and pulling survivors from the water.
Locals at the scene said a navy vessel took between 30 and 45 minutes to reach the boat. By that time, it had been ripped apart after crashing into the cliff face.

Full Story

Monday, December 13, 2010

40 Acres and a Vacuum-Packed Mule

When thinking about colonization of other worlds and places within our solar system, I am reminded of how very unhappy many earthbound colonists have been with their new homes. When the Denny Party landed on Alki Beach in what was to become Seattle, the women and children wept at the realization that they had left civilization to be stranded upon some of the most temperate and arable land on the planet. They wept because they were far away from home, and because it was raining. Seattle rain. Not deluge, just steady drizzle. Plenty of water, plenty of food, November temperatures in the mid 50s, and the natives were friendly and helpful. But the settlers were heartbroken because it wasn't New York City, yet.

A closer (albeit fictional) analog to our potential planetary expats are the intrepid penguins from the movie Madagascar, who, having commandeered a merchant ship to Antarctica, set foot on the Antarctic ice and solemnly pronounce, "well, this sucks". 


Seattle, on the worst of days, is a hell of a lot more clement than Mars. Antarctica, on the worst of days, is a hell of a lot more clement than Mars.

So what would motivate thousands of people to relocate off-world to a place less hospitable than the least hospitable places on earth? To create, not just a scientific outpost like McMurdo Station in Antarctica, or a mining facility like Prudhoe Bay, but an actual frontier settlement?

What has caused people to create such colonies in the past? Here are a few possibilities.

Mineral or other wealth has always been a strong motivator, but there's no reason to imagine that we'll experience a Lunar or Martian Gold-Rush anytime soon. Mars has plenty of iron, but so does earth, and earth's iron deposits are a lot closer.

What Mars does have, however, is an awful lot of cheap real estate. Assuming that the cost of transporting a large number of families could be kept low per family, some people would likely be enticed by the possibility of owning a plot of land the size of, say, Japan. The land isn't arable, so they would be under no obligation to cultivate it. First generation homesteaders could congregate in a central community on Mars, and "tend" their lands from a distance. Once the central community was well-established, some settlers might well chose to actually homestead on their property. The central "city" would continue to grow, and smaller communities would crystallize around the outlying homesteads. In this way, large expanses of Mars could be colonized quickly, albeit sparsely.

One of the easiest ways to relocate large numbers of people from more desirable land to less desirable land is, um, against their will. Penal colonies, for example, have a long history of thriving in the most adverse conditions, and emerging within a few generations as a stable society. I'm actually a fan of penal colonies. But my ancestors were among the first European colonists of Australia, so I'm a direct result of one. The Botany Bay and Port Moresby colonies were unequivocally successful. A large penal colony on Mars or Callisto might, another century hence, be a sprawling metropolis like Sydney or Brisbane.

A slightly more benign corollary to the penal colony is the refugee camp. A population dislocated from their homeland by famine, war or persecution might well find impetus to settle on an alien world. It is not difficult to imagine a latter day Plymouth, or Salt Lake City, or Tel Aviv rising from the deserts of Mare Frigoris. 

It is also possible that utopianists would build a sanctuary from worldly ills on another world. Robert Heinlein envisioned a lunar libertarian utopia in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I am inclined to imagine that it would be utopianists, if anyone, who would first settle Enceladus. Nestled within Saturn's rings, spinning like a top delicately perched on the ice, a rotating colony on the surface of Enceladus would be far removed from terrestrial worries and law enforcement, but habitable and comfortable for those willing to leave earth behind forever. And the views would be unequalled in the solar system.

These are a small number of possibilities, there are thousands more.

Whether I have created here a reasonable template for future out-migration, or simply the backdrop for a science fiction novel, only time will tell. But it has been an interesting thought-experiment.

Outmigration: Candidate Lineup

Assuming a minimum of 1 acre per person (including arable land) total space required for any of our colonies, and assuming an initial colony of 1000 individuals capable of expanding to 10,000 individuals, in each case we need 4 square km of habitable space initially which can be expanded to 40 square km of living space eventually. Each of these candidates have the potential to accomplish this.

Low Orbtal Toroidal Station

Distance ~ 1000 km from surface (ISS is 500 km)
Gravity: 1.0G, or whatever is desired
Escape Velocity ANY
Braking: Thrust only
Existing life potential: none
Resources: None
Radiation: Low
Asteroid vulnerability: low to moderate

Advantage: Easiest access of any candidate, full gravity
Disadvantage: All materials to build must come from earth.

L4 or L5 Langrangian Orbit Toroidal Station


Distance 400,000 km
Gravity: 1.0G, or whatever is desired
Escape Velocity ANY
Braking: Thrust only
Existing life potential: none
Resources: None
Radiation: High
Asteroid vulnerability: moderate to high

Advantage: Stable orbit, could build very large without need for propulsion, full gravity
Disadvantage: All materials to build must come from earth or moon.

Peary Crater (Moon)

Distance 400,000 km
Gravity: 0.2G
Crater Diameter 73 km
Escape Velocity 2.38 km/sec
Braking: Thrust only
Existing life potential: none
Resources: Rock, iron, limited water
Radiation: Low
Asteroid vulnerability: Low

Advantage: Close, ample resources for small colony
Disadvantage: Size of colony self-limiting, few similarly ideal locations on moon

Mars

Distance Variable, ~100,000,000km
Gravity 0.4G
Escape Velocity 5.03 km/sec
Weak atmospheric braking, high winds
Existing life potential: very low
Resources: Rock, iron, water
Radiation: Low
Asteroid vulnerability: Low

Advantage: Very large settlements possible, most "earth-like" of candidates
Disadvantage: Unless we find substantial fossil deposits, not much incentive to stay on Mars

Callisto

Distance ~800,000,000km
Gravity 0.1G
Escape Velocity 2.44 km/sec
Braking: Thrust only
Existing life potential: very low
Resources: Rock, iron, water
Radiation: Low
Asteroid vulnerability: Moderately High

Advantages: Good outpost for study of rest of Jupiter system
Disadvantages: Other than research, not much incentive to colonize

Enceladus

Distance 1,300,000,000km
Gravity 0.01G
Escape Velocity 0.24 km/sec
Braking: Thrust only
Existing life potential: moderate to high
Resources: Water
Radiation: Low
Asteroid vulnerability: High

Advantages: Gravity light enough that a rotating toroid built (or landed) on Enceladus could provide full gravity for inhabitants, while surface gravity sufficiently low for many low-G applications. LOTS of water ice. Great view. Good outpost for research of Titan.

Disadvantages: Very far away.


Tomorrow we'll look at some of the potential motivations to colonize, and from this make a best guess of which candidate would best serve each motive.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Colonial Real Estate

In the past few weeks we've looked at some of the possible locations in our solar system which may one day be colonized by humans. The next step is to compare these, but first we must establish our parameters for colonization. Based on our original premise of a colony as a second home for our species in the event of an extinction-level event on earth, we can make the following "wish list".

1) The colony should be large enough to be self-sustaining without a continual influx of new colonists, but should be able to accommodate a gradual or sudden influx of new colonists should the need arise. At a minimum, the initial colony should support 1000 individuals, with the potential to expand to 10,000 colonists or more.

2) The first phase of the colony (supporting the first 1000 colonists) should be able to be completed and self-sustaining within 100 earth years.   

3) The colony should be distant enough from earth to minimize the effect on the colony in the event of an extinction event on earth, but close enough to earth to make communications and commerce otherwise viable.

4) The colony should be reasonably protected against an extinction event of its own, either by radiation, meteorite impact, disease or famine.

5) The colony should have some reasonable approximation of earth's gravity available to the colonists.

6) The colony should have readily available resources for building, radiation shielding, water and fuel.

7) The colony should be economically viable, both independently and as a colony of earth. A colony with no reason to exist will not exist for long. Even with a strong economic incentive colonization may not surpass the minimum needed to attain that economic incentive. For example, Prudhoe Bay is about as important economically as any outpost could be, requires several thousand transient workers to maintain but only 3 people (as of the 2009 census) actually live there. Prudhoe is damnably remote and cold, but compared to any of our candidates it's right next door and a veritable paradise. There's a LOT of money to be had in Prudhoe Bay for anyone enterprising enough to get it, but so far, nobody has. Think about that for a minute. The transient oil-workers make an awful lot of money there. If they had the opportunity to spend that money on site, they'd spend a lot of it. But there's not so much as a bar at Prudhoe Bay. Here's the entire business district of Prudhoe Bay AK:


Any colony which is not able to attract a lot more full-time colonist than Prudhoe Bay, isn't going to succeed as a colony.

8) There should not be an existing ecosystem for the colonists to compete with, either eukaryotic or prokaryotic. There is plenty of real estate to be had in our solar system without instigating a war of the worlds.

9) The colony should be reasonably easy to transport personnel and materials to and from, specifically onto and off of. The easiest surface to land on is one without any atmosphere at all, which allows a landing by thrust-braking alone. This is how the Apollo landers worked. Added atmosphere means added windage. Not impossible, but more difficult. Of the candidates, only Mars has enough atmosphere to allow for (barely) effective atmospheric braking. Also, generally speaking, the lower the gravity the easier the landing.

Alright, so here's our colonial wish list. In the next post, we'll see how each of the candidates measure up to it, and each other.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

500mb and Surface Analysis for Flood Warnings

More from National Weather Service:


Flood Warning from NOAA/NWS

FLOOD WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SEATTLE WA
1148 AM PST SAT DEC 11 2010

...THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SEATTLE HAS ISSUED A FLOOD WARNING
FOR THE FOLLOWING RIVERS IN WASHINGTON...

  SOUTH FORK NOOKSACK RIVER AT SAXON BRIDGE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  NOOKSACK RIVER AT NORTH CEDARVILLE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  NOOKSACK RIVER AT FERNDALE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  SKAGIT RIVER NEAR CONCRETE AFFECTING SKAGIT COUNTY.
  SKAGIT RIVER NEAR MT. VERNON AFFECTING SKAGIT COUNTY.
  NORTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER NEAR ARLINGTON AFFECTING SNOHOMISH
  COUNTY.
  SOUTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER NEAR GRANITE FALLS AFFECTING
  SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  STILLAGUAMISH RIVER AT ARLINGTON AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SKYKOMISH RIVER NEAR GOLD BAR AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SNOHOMISH RIVER NEAR MONROE AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SNOHOMISH RIVER AT SNOHOMISH AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  TOLT RIVER NEAR CARNATION AFFECTING KING COUNTY.
  SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR THE FALLS AFFECTING KING COUNTY.
  SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR CARNATION AFFECTING KING COUNTY.

.FLOOD BULLETIN NO. 2

HEAVY RAIN HAS BEGUN TO DEVELOP OVER FAR SOUTHERN WASHINGTON.
THE HEAVY RAIN IS FORECAST TO SPREAD NORTH AND CONTINUE TONIGHT
AND SUNDAY. HIGHER ELEVATION AREAS NORTH AND CENTRAL CASCADES ARE
LIKELY TO RECEIVE 4 TO 9 INCHES OF RAIN DURING THIS PERIOD. THIS
RAINFALL WILL DRIVE ALL MAIN STEM RIVERS...FROM THE NOOKSACK IN
WHATCOM COUNTY TO THE SNOQUALMIE IN KING COUNTY...ABOVE FLOOD STAGE.

MOST RIVERS WILL EXPERIENCE MODERATE FLOODING. SOME...INCLUDING THE
UPPER SKAGIT...THE LOWER SNOQUALMIE...AND THE SNOHOMISH...COULD
HAVE MAJOR FLOODING.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...

DO NOT DRIVE CARS...VANS...OR TRUCKS THROUGH FLOODED AREAS...THIS IS
THE CAUSE OF MOST FLOOD RELATED DEATHS IN WASHINGTON. BE ALERT FOR
RAPID CHANGES AND MONITOR DEVELOPMENTS BY LISTENING TO NOAA WEATHER
RADIO OR OTHER LOCAL MEDIA.

&&

WAC033-120447-
/O.NEW.KSEW.FL.W.0033.101212T1418Z-101213T1528Z/
/TOLW1.2.ER.101212T1418Z.101213T0000Z.101213T0628Z.NO/
1148 AM PST SAT DEC 11 2010

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SEATTLE HAS ISSUED A

* FLOOD WARNING FOR
  THE TOLT RIVER NEAR CARNATION
* FROM SUNDAY MORNING TO MONDAY MORNING.
* AT 11:15 AM SATURDAY THE FLOW WAS 907.0 CFS.
* FLOOD FLOW IS 4500 CFS.
* MODERATE FLOODING IS FORECAST.
* FORECAST...THE RIVER WILL RISE ABOVE FLOOD FLOW AROUND 6 AM SUNDAY
  AND CREST NEAR 6200 CFS AROUND 4 PM SUNDAY. THE RIVER WILL FALL
  BELOW FLOOD FLOW SUNDAY NIGHT.
* IMPACT...AT 4500 CFS...THE TOLT RIVER WILL FLOOD TOLT RIVER RD AND
  MANY DRIVEWAYS. SOME HOMES IN THE SAN SOUCI AREA COULD BE
  INACCESSIBLE DUE TO DEEP AND QUICK FLOOD WATERS. THIS RIVER LEVEL
  ON THE TOLT CORRESPONDS TO A PHASE 3 FLOOD IN THE KING COUNTY FLOOD
  SYSTEM.

$$


Flood Warning

FLOOD WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SEATTLE WA
1148 AM PST SAT DEC 11 2010

...THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SEATTLE HAS ISSUED A FLOOD WARNING
FOR THE FOLLOWING RIVERS IN WASHINGTON...

  SOUTH FORK NOOKSACK RIVER AT SAXON BRIDGE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  NOOKSACK RIVER AT NORTH CEDARVILLE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  NOOKSACK RIVER AT FERNDALE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  SKAGIT RIVER NEAR CONCRETE AFFECTING SKAGIT COUNTY.
  SKAGIT RIVER NEAR MT. VERNON AFFECTING SKAGIT COUNTY.
  NORTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER NEAR ARLINGTON AFFECTING SNOHOMISH
  COUNTY.
  SOUTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER NEAR GRANITE FALLS AFFECTING
  SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  STILLAGUAMISH RIVER AT ARLINGTON AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SKYKOMISH RIVER NEAR GOLD BAR AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SNOHOMISH RIVER NEAR MONROE AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SNOHOMISH RIVER AT SNOHOMISH AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  TOLT RIVER NEAR CARNATION AFFECTING KING COUNTY.
  SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR THE FALLS AFFECTING KING COUNTY.
  SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR CARNATION AFFECTING KING COUNTY.

.FLOOD BULLETIN NO. 2

HEAVY RAIN HAS BEGUN TO DEVELOP OVER FAR SOUTHERN WASHINGTON.
THE HEAVY RAIN IS FORECAST TO SPREAD NORTH AND CONTINUE TONIGHT
AND SUNDAY. HIGHER ELEVATION AREAS NORTH AND CENTRAL CASCADES ARE
LIKELY TO RECEIVE 4 TO 9 INCHES OF RAIN DURING THIS PERIOD. THIS
RAINFALL WILL DRIVE ALL MAIN STEM RIVERS...FROM THE NOOKSACK IN
WHATCOM COUNTY TO THE SNOQUALMIE IN KING COUNTY...ABOVE FLOOD STAGE.

MOST RIVERS WILL EXPERIENCE MODERATE FLOODING. SOME...INCLUDING THE
UPPER SKAGIT...THE LOWER SNOQUALMIE...AND THE SNOHOMISH...COULD
HAVE MAJOR FLOODING.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...

DO NOT DRIVE CARS...VANS...OR TRUCKS THROUGH FLOODED AREAS...THIS IS
THE CAUSE OF MOST FLOOD RELATED DEATHS IN WASHINGTON. BE ALERT FOR
RAPID CHANGES AND MONITOR DEVELOPMENTS BY LISTENING TO NOAA WEATHER
RADIO OR OTHER LOCAL MEDIA.

&&

WAC033-120447-
/O.NEW.KSEW.FL.W.0034.101212T1223Z-101213T2146Z/
/SQUW1.2.ER.101212T1223Z.101212T1800Z.101213T1246Z.NO/
1148 AM PST SAT DEC 11 2010

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SEATTLE HAS ISSUED A

* FLOOD WARNING FOR
  THE SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR THE FALLS
* FROM LATE TONIGHT TO MONDAY AFTERNOON.
* AT 10:30 AM SATURDAY THE FLOW WAS 3506 CFS.
* FLOOD FLOW IS 20000 CFS.
* MODERATE FLOODING IS FORECAST.
* FORECAST...THE RIVER WILL RISE ABOVE FLOOD FLOW AROUND 4 AM SUNDAY
  AND CREST NEAR 35000 CFS AROUND 10 AM SUNDAY. THE RIVER WILL FALL
  BELOW FLOOD FLOW EARLY MONDAY MORNING.
* IMPACT...AT 30000 CFS...THE SNOQUALMIE RIVER WILL CAUSE WIDESPREAD
  FLOODING OF PASTURE LANDS AND ROADS ALONG THE RIVER FROM THE TOWN
  OF SNOQUALMIE DOWNSTREAM THROUGH FALL CITY. ROADS THAT MAY BECOME
  FLOODED INCLUDE FALL CITY-CARNATION...TOLT HILL...AND NOVELTY FLATS
  ROADS. THIS RIVER LEVEL ON THE SNOQUALMIE CORRESPONDS ROUGHLY TO A
  PHASE 3 FLOOD IN THE KING COUNTY FLOOD SYSTEM.

$$


Flood Warning

FLOOD WARNING
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SEATTLE WA
1148 AM PST SAT DEC 11 2010

...THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SEATTLE HAS ISSUED A FLOOD WARNING
FOR THE FOLLOWING RIVERS IN WASHINGTON...

  SOUTH FORK NOOKSACK RIVER AT SAXON BRIDGE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  NOOKSACK RIVER AT NORTH CEDARVILLE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  NOOKSACK RIVER AT FERNDALE AFFECTING WHATCOM COUNTY.
  SKAGIT RIVER NEAR CONCRETE AFFECTING SKAGIT COUNTY.
  SKAGIT RIVER NEAR MT. VERNON AFFECTING SKAGIT COUNTY.
  NORTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER NEAR ARLINGTON AFFECTING SNOHOMISH
  COUNTY.
  SOUTH FORK STILLAGUAMISH RIVER NEAR GRANITE FALLS AFFECTING
  SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  STILLAGUAMISH RIVER AT ARLINGTON AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SKYKOMISH RIVER NEAR GOLD BAR AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SNOHOMISH RIVER NEAR MONROE AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  SNOHOMISH RIVER AT SNOHOMISH AFFECTING SNOHOMISH COUNTY.
  TOLT RIVER NEAR CARNATION AFFECTING KING COUNTY.
  SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR THE FALLS AFFECTING KING COUNTY.
  SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR CARNATION AFFECTING KING COUNTY.

.FLOOD BULLETIN NO. 2

HEAVY RAIN HAS BEGUN TO DEVELOP OVER FAR SOUTHERN WASHINGTON.
THE HEAVY RAIN IS FORECAST TO SPREAD NORTH AND CONTINUE TONIGHT
AND SUNDAY. HIGHER ELEVATION AREAS NORTH AND CENTRAL CASCADES ARE
LIKELY TO RECEIVE 4 TO 9 INCHES OF RAIN DURING THIS PERIOD. THIS
RAINFALL WILL DRIVE ALL MAIN STEM RIVERS...FROM THE NOOKSACK IN
WHATCOM COUNTY TO THE SNOQUALMIE IN KING COUNTY...ABOVE FLOOD STAGE.

MOST RIVERS WILL EXPERIENCE MODERATE FLOODING. SOME...INCLUDING THE
UPPER SKAGIT...THE LOWER SNOQUALMIE...AND THE SNOHOMISH...COULD
HAVE MAJOR FLOODING.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS...

DO NOT DRIVE CARS...VANS...OR TRUCKS THROUGH FLOODED AREAS...THIS IS
THE CAUSE OF MOST FLOOD RELATED DEATHS IN WASHINGTON. BE ALERT FOR
RAPID CHANGES AND MONITOR DEVELOPMENTS BY LISTENING TO NOAA WEATHER
RADIO OR OTHER LOCAL MEDIA.

&&

WAC033-120447-
/O.NEW.KSEW.FL.W.0035.101212T1517Z-101214T1604Z/
/CRNW1.3.ER.101212T1517Z.101213T0600Z.101214T0704Z.NO/
1148 AM PST SAT DEC 11 2010

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN SEATTLE HAS ISSUED A

* FLOOD WARNING FOR
  THE SNOQUALMIE RIVER NEAR CARNATION
* FROM SUNDAY MORNING TO TUESDAY MORNING.
* AT 10:30 AM SATURDAY THE STAGE WAS 48.4 FEET.
* FLOOD STAGE IS 54.0 FEET.
* MAJOR FLOODING IS FORECAST.
* FORECAST...THE RIVER WILL RISE ABOVE FLOOD STAGE AROUND 7 AM SUNDAY
  AND CREST NEAR 58.2 FEET AROUND 10 PM SUNDAY. THE RIVER WILL FALL
  BELOW FLOOD STAGE MONDAY NIGHT.
* IMPACT...AT 58.0 FEET...THE SNOQUALMIE RIVER WILL CAUSE MAJOR
  FLOODING FROM FALL CITY DOWNSTREAM THROUGH CARNATION AND DUVALL.
  DEEP AND SWIFT FLOOD WATERS WILL INUNDATE MANY FARMS...RESIDENTIAL
  AREAS...AND ROADS.  FLOODING WILL OCCUR ALL ALONG THE RIVER
  INCLUDING HEADWATERS...TRIBUTARIES...AND OTHER STREAMS WITHIN AND
  NEAR THE SNOQUALMIE RIVER BASIN.

$$

Cancún 2010 (the Maginot Line revisted)

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún Mexico completed today, resulting in a broad multinational (non-binding) agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. Given the lack of success of previous climate change conferences, the participants are to be lauded for coming to any agreement with this broad of a platform. Also given that as recently as 10 years ago some scientists were still skeptical about the impact of fossil-fuel carbon emissions on global climate change, from a political standpoint, what the UN accomplished at Cancún these past three weeks is actually pretty huge. And realistically, given the global economy right now, they probably could not have achieved any more than they did, at this point.


Unfortunately, what they achieved is still probably too little and too late to accomplish much more than slightly delaying the inevitable. The cornerstone of the agreement calls upon industrially developed and developing nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions and modify forestry practices to ultimately limit global temperatures to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The problem is that global temperatures have already risen more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels, and we are both burning fossil fuels and deforesting at a far higher rate now than at any time since the industrial revolution. So while limiting global warming to 2°C is a noble goal, at this point it's frankly unrealistic.




Let's do a quick review of how the earth's temperature cycle works, and why it is that carbon emissions are such a problem for maintaining its equilibrium.

We start with the total amount of short-wave insolation (INcoming SOLar radiATION) entering the earth's atmosphere as 100%. About 36% of that is reflected back into space by clouds, the atmosphere or the land and water. Another 13% is absorbed into the atmosphere, and another 51% is absorbed into the earth and water. Subsequently, 56% of the toal insolation is re-radiated back to space from the atmosphere, and the remaining 8% is re-radiated directly from the land and sea back to space as long-wave radiation. So long as these numbers balance, temperatures on earth remain more or less constant. But even a tiny change in the amount of radiation entering or leaving the earth will slowly but continually increase or decrease the temperatures on earth's surface.

Greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide allow short-wave insolation to enter the earth's atmosphere and surface, but limit the amount of long-wave radiation re-radiated from the earth's surface to escape. Some amount of geenhouse effect is critical for human life on earth: without it,  average surface temperatures on earth would be around -20°C (-4°F), as opposed to the 15°C (59°F) we currently enjoy.

However, the industrial revolution and the subsequent burning of fossil fuels has altered the balance of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, and has also increased the heat input into our atmosphere at the same time. Since 1750 the concentrations of COin our atmosphere have increased by 36%, and the concentrations of methane have increased by 148%. Increase the greenhouse gasses and you decrease the amount of radiation which can escape from earth back to outer space, without decreasing the radiation coming in from space. Equilibrium is disrupted, and the earth warms. The best projections based on the best modeling we have right now indicate that global temperatures by the end of the 21st century will be between 2°C and 5°C higher than what they are in 2010.


Which means that the UNCCC's goal of a "mere" 1°C increase is probably unobtainable.

All of this reminds me of the French reliance on the Maginot Line during the lead-up to World War II. Subsequent to the lessons in trench warfare learned in the first World War, France built a substantial network of fortifications along the French/German border to repel or at least delay a German invasion. Lesser fortifications were also built along France's border with Belgium. On 10 May 1940 Germany successfully attacked Fort Eben-Emael on the Belgian/Dutch border, and proceeded from there to breach the lesser fortifications on the Belgian/French border, effectively circumventing the Maginot Line altogether. The invasion of France was bloody and swift, and Paris fell on 14 June 1940. Even when flanked and attacked from behind the line, the Maginot held; only 10 of the 58 major fortifications of the Maginot Line were captured or destroyed. But the nation it was built to defend fell quickly to Nazi occupation.


The Cancún conference seems an awful lot like the Maginot Line. It's a fairly robust "fortification" to reduce the rate of increase of carbon emissions. But the existing levels of COand methane have already exceeded the threshold necessary to cause runaway global warming. Unless we work aggressively to mitigate the damage which has already been done as well as drastically reducing future emissions, all of the work done at Cancún is just whistling in the graveyard.

The complete texts of the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun (COP 16 / CMP 6) are available here:

COP 16 / CMP 6

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Enceladus, reconsidered

Early in this series on planetary outmigration I wrote off Saturn's moon Enceladus as being both too small and too distant. However, one aspect that I had not given serious thought to is the relative thinness of the surface ice, compared to the moons of Jupiter. Where Europa's ice is some 100km thick above her salty oceans and Ganymede's is close to 200km, the ice mantle on Enceladus is somewhere between 5km and 30km, with most estimates leaning toward the lower end of that spectrum. Now, compared to an average Arctic ice cap on earth of 3 to 4 meters, this is still an awful lot of ice. But when considering the time spent in transit from earth added to the time spent boring down to liquid water, Enceladus starts to compare pretty favorably to Jupiter's icy moons. But Enceladus is still tiny, which means her gravity is very weak (0.0113 earth gravities), which means that a 200 lb person would weigh a little more than 2 lbs. However, the surface radiation on Enceladus is quite low, and it is not entirely impossible that her very low gravity could be turned to an advantage.

Regardless of the difficulty in colonizing Enceladus, one thing is for certain. Any colony on the surface of Enceladus is going to have one hell of a view of Saturn, albeit edge-on through the rings.

Here are two composite photos which give a pretty good visual of the relative size of Enceladus:



Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941

I wasn't able to post yesterday, but I wanted to recognize and remember the many vessels and crews who were lost on 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor. 

The attack began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time, and lasted 90 minutes total.
We often remember the USS Arizona, but many other vessels and aircraft were destroyed or severely damaged that day. The following is from www.pearlharbor.org.



Battleships:

USS Arizona (BB-39) - sunk, total loss, lies at bottom of Pearl Harbor
USS Oklahoma (BB-37)  - capsized, total loss
USS West Virginia (BB-48) - sunk, later raised, repaired and rejoined fleet July 1944
USS California (BB-44)  - sunk, later raised, repaired and rejoined fleet May 1944
USS Nevada (BB-36) - heavily damaged, grounded, repaired and rejoined fleet December 1942
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) - was in drydock - slightly damaged, repaired and rejoined fleet August 1942
USS Maryland (BB-46) - damaged, repaired and rejoined fleet February 1942
USS Tennessee (BB-43)  - damaged, repaired and rejoined fleet March 1942.

Cruisers:

USS Helena (CL-50) - heavily damaged, repaired and rejoined fleet June 1942
USS Honolulu (CL-48) - damaged, repaired and rejoined fleet January 1942
USS Raleigh (CL-7) - heavily damaged, repaired and rejoined fleet July 1942

Destroyers:

USS Cassin (DD-372) - was in drydock - heavily damaged, rebuilt and rejoined fleet February 1944
USS Downes (DD-375) - was in drydock - heavily damaged rebuilt and rejoined fleet November 1943
USS Helm (DD-388) - damaged, continued on patrol, repaired and rejoined fleet January 1942
USS Shaw (DD-373) - in floating drydock - severely damaged and repaired

Minelayers:

USS Oglala (CM-4) - sunk, raised, repaired and rejoined fleet February 1944

Auxiliaries:

Seaplane Tender - USS Curtiss (AV-4) - damaged, repaired and rejoined fleet January 1942
Harbor Tug - USS Sotoyomo (YT-9) - with Shaw - sunk, raised, repaired and rejoined fleet August 1942
USS Utah (AG-16) - capsized, on bottom of Pearl Harbor
Vestal - heavily damaged, beached, refloated, repaired and rejoined fleet February 1942
YFD-2 - sunk, raised, refloated, repaired and rejoined fleet May 1942

In addition, the following aircraft were lost:

U.S. Navy - 92 lost, 31 damaged.
U.S. Army - 77 lost, 128 damaged.
Japanese - 9 fighters, 15 dive bombers, 5 torpedo bombers.

In all, 2,402 military personnel were killed, 1,247 military personnel were wounded, 57 civilians were killed 35 civilians wounded.  

Some Japanese officers desired a third wave of the attack focused on shipyards, depots and other naval infrastructure; had this occurred, Japan may well have won the war.

Japan formally declared war against the US on December 8th, and Germany and Italy formally declared war on the US on December 11th. World War II continued until 15 August 1945.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Europa and the Pirate Twins

Of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, only the outer three have any potential for human habitation. Inner Io is almost literally hellish.

That leaves Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Each of these have advantages and drawbacks. Let's look at each.

Europa

First off, let me state that from the standpoint of exploration and exobiolgy, Europa is the gold mine of our solar system. Europa is is by far the best candidate for extraterrestrial life of any of the Sun's worlds other than our earth. In fact, Europa has potential to host not only individual prokaryotic life, but colonial prokaryotes and possibly eukaryotes as well. Europa may actually be inhabited by megafauna analogous to that which existed on earth during the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods of earth's history. In simple terms, Europa's oceans may harbor life that would be readily recognizable as such by a casual observer without a microscope.

Which means that Europa is very likely off-limits for human colonization. Also, of the three moons Europa is the closest to Jupiter's radiation, receiving about 540 rem per day on the surface, which is a fatal dose for humans. The 100 kilometer thick ice mantle would provide adequate radiation shielding, but it takes a long, long time to bore through 100 kilometers of ice. 

Ganymede

Ganymede receives only 8 rem per day jovian radiation, which is not fatal in the short term but which would result in chromosomal damage in the long term. Ganymede's oceans lie some 200 kilometers beneath her surface, even less accessible than Europa's. At 5262 kilometers diameter Ganymede is larger than either our moon or Mercury, but because it is mostly made of water ice it's mass and gravity is significantly less than either of these, so this isn't really a very big advantage. Ganymede's oxygen atmosphere is also too thin to be of any real asset.

Callisto

Callisto is nearly as large as Ganymede, and has less liquid water beneath her rock and ice surface. However, she likely has ample water to sustain a significant human population, and is far enough away from Jupiter that she receives only a very acceptable 0.01 rem per day on her surface. In many ways Callisto is the least enticing of the outer Galilean satellites, but she may well be our single best option for colonization within the Jovian planetary system. From her surface Europa would also be much easier to study and explore. One thing about Callisto to consider, though, is that her orbit on the perimeter of Jupiter's gravity means she gets pelted by an awful lot of interplanetary debris, especially on the hemisphere facing away from Jupiter. Any colony on Callisto would definitely need to watch for falling rocks. On the other hand, any colony on Callisto would certainly be on the hemisphere facing Jupiter. All things considered, Callisto must be numbered on the short list of candidates for human outmigration.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Discovery Triples Number of Stars in the Universe

This would seem to be the week for big announcements in astronomy. Yale University's Pieter van Dokkum has used Hawaii's Keck Observatory to discover that nearby elliptical galaxies, unlike our own Milky Way, have about three times as many red dwarf stars as previously anticipated. Which helps explain some of what was previously considered "Dark Matter", and also vastly increases the number of potential life-harboring worlds in our galactic neighborhood.

The implications of this are far-reaching, both for the realm of physics and exobiology. Interesting times.
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Astronomers have discovered that small, dim stars known as red dwarfs are much more prolific than previously thought -- so much so that the total number of stars in the Universe is likely three times bigger than realized.

Because red dwarfs are relatively small and dim compared to stars like our Sun, astronomers hadn’t been able to detect them in galaxies other than our own Milky Way and its nearest neighbors before now. As such, they did not know how much of the total stellar population of the universe is made up of red dwarfs.


Now astronomers have used powerful instruments on the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to detect the faint signature of red dwarfs in eight massive, relatively nearby galaxies called elliptical galaxies, which are located between about 50 million and 300 million light-years away. They discovered that the red dwarfs, which are only between 10 and 20 percent as massive as the Sun, were much more bountiful than expected.

“No one knew how many of these stars there were,” said Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale University astronomer who led the research, which is described in Nature’s Dec.1 Advanced Online Publication. “Different theoretical models predicted a wide range of possibilities, so this answers a longstanding question about just how abundant these star are.”
“We usually assume other galaxies look like our own. But this suggests other conditions are possible in other galaxies,” Conroy said. “So this discovery could have a major impact on our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution.”

For instance, Conroy said, galaxies might contain less dark matter -- a mysterious substance that has mass but cannot be directly observed -- than previous measurements of their masses might have indicated. Instead, the abundant red dwarfs could contribute more mass than realized.

In addition to boosting the total number of stars in the universe, the discovery also increases the number of planets orbiting those stars, which in turn elevates the number of planets that might harbor life, van Dokkum said. In fact, a recently discovered exoplanet that astronomers believe could potentially support life orbits a red dwarf star, called Gliese 581.


Full Article