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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ain't like dusting crops, boy!

The recent discovery of more small moons orbiting Pluto flags the possibility of a debris field which could seriously endanger the New Horizons probe when it arrives there in 2015. The question is not whether the debris field exists, which it seems to. Rather, the issue is whether the debris field is in the form of a disk (such as Saturn's rings) or a cloud. The best indications right now are for the latter.


Pluto's Moons Could Spell Danger for New Horizons Spacecraft

When NASA's New Horizons spacecraft reaches Pluto in July 2015, it may find the region more hazardous than anticipated. The discovery of several moons around Pluto — and the potential for more — increase the risks during the probe's flyby.

The main problem is debris. The small moons are under constant bombardment from nearby space rocks called Kuiper Belt objects, but the moons' low gravity prevents them from holding on to chunks of dirt and rock that fly into the air when hit. The debris instead finds itself caught in orbit around Pluto, where it could pose a serious threat to New Horizons.

"The most likely problem we would encounter is to be hit by something that is large enough to instantly destroy the spacecraft," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, told

Though cameras on the New Horizons probe will begin observing the Pluto system several months before its closest approach, they won't be able to detect the fast-flying milligram-size particles that could spell instant death if they collide with the vehicle.

New moons on the rise

Pluto's first known moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978, nearly 50 years after the dwarf planet was found. The Hubble Space Telescope discovered the next two of Pluto's moons in 2005, only two and a half months before New Horizons was launched.

In July of this year, a fourth moon of Pluto was located, and there are hints that two more might exist.

With three of Pluto's four moons having been discovered in the last five years, scientists have a hunch there are likely more still hidden.

Due to these new additions, a group of experts recently convened to analyze the hazards New Horizons might face. After determining the threat was real, they discussed how to avoid it.

A harder look at the challenge could make a significant difference, scientists say. Continuing to study the system with the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as several ground-based telescopes, could help reveal other hidden moons and their orbits well before New Horizons arrives.

Hunting hidden moons

But searching doesn't necessarily mean success.

"If there are moons too small, meaning too faint, then we won't find them," Stern said.

With that in mind, the group also determined the need for a good "safe haven bailout trajectory," or SHBOT — an orbit that New Horizons could shift into that would keep it away from the most likely danger zones.

The best route would zip through Charon's orbit, but on the opposite side of the planet from the moon. The large body constantly clears debris from its path, creating a safe route for New Horizons to pass through.

This strategy works best if the debris remains in a plane, similar to Saturn's rings. If, however, it orbits Pluto in a cloud, the danger is heightened.

If New Horizons encounters dirt and dust from the moons, it could put an abrupt end to the first mission to Pluto.

"There is no wounded here — only dead or alive," Stern said.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Curiosity abounds

Very nice photo of the launch of the new Mars rover Curiosity. The vehicle is an Atlas V 541.

Naomi Wolf on federal response to Occupy protests

Excellent but disturbing analysis of US federal government's response to the Occupy protests, by Naomi Wolf. A bit hyperbolic, I hope, but very thought-provoking.


The Guardian (UK)
Friday 25 November 2011 12.25 EST

The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy

The violent police assaults across the US are no coincidence. Occupy has touched the third rail of our political class's venality

by Naomi Wolf

US citizens of all political persuasions are still reeling from images of unparallelled police brutality in a coordinated crackdown against peaceful OWS protesters in cities across the nation this past week. An elderly woman was pepper-sprayed in the face; the scene of unresisting, supine students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed by phalanxes of riot police went viral online; images proliferated of young women – targeted seemingly for their gender – screaming, dragged by the hair by police in riot gear; and the pictures of a young man, stunned and bleeding profusely from the head, emerged in the record of the middle-of-the-night clearing of Zuccotti Park.

But just when Americans thought we had the picture – was this crazy police and mayoral overkill, on a municipal level, in many different cities? – the picture darkened. The National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a Freedom of Information Act request to investigate possible federal involvement with law enforcement practices that appeared to target journalists. The New York Times reported that "New York cops have arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground and tossed a barrier at reporters and photographers" covering protests. Reporters were asked by NYPD to raise their hands to prove they had credentials: when many dutifully did so, they were taken, upon threat of arrest, away from the story they were covering, and penned far from the site in which the news was unfolding. Other reporters wearing press passes were arrested and roughed up by cops, after being – falsely – informed by police that "It is illegal to take pictures on the sidewalk."

In New York, a state supreme court justice and a New York City council member were beaten up; in Berkeley, California, one of our greatest national poets, Robert Hass, was beaten with batons. The picture darkened still further when Wonkette and reported that the Mayor of Oakland acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security had participated in an 18-city mayor conference call advising mayors on "how to suppress" Occupy protests.

To Europeans, the enormity of this breach may not be obvious at first. Our system of government prohibits the creation of a federalised police force, and forbids federal or militarised involvement in municipal peacekeeping.

I noticed that rightwing pundits and politicians on the TV shows on which I was appearing were all on-message against OWS. Journalist Chris Hayes reported on a leaked memo that revealed lobbyists vying for an $850,000 contract to smear Occupy. Message coordination of this kind is impossible without a full-court press at the top. This was clearly not simply a case of a freaked-out mayors', city-by-city municipal overreaction against mess in the parks and cranky campers. As the puzzle pieces fit together, they began to show coordination against OWS at the highest national levels.

Why this massive mobilisation against these not-yet-fully-articulated, unarmed, inchoate people? After all, protesters against the war in Iraq, Tea Party rallies and others have all proceeded without this coordinated crackdown. Is it really the camping? As I write, two hundred young people, with sleeping bags, suitcases and even folding chairs, are still camping out all night and day outside of NBC on public sidewalks – under the benevolent eye of an NYPD cop – awaiting Saturday Night Live tickets, so surely the camping is not the issue. I was still deeply puzzled as to why OWS, this hapless, hopeful band, would call out a violent federal response.

That is, until I found out what it was that OWS actually wanted.

The mainstream media was declaring continually "OWS has no message". Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online "What is it you want?" answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.

The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. This law would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create kale derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them.

For the terrible insight to take away from news that the Department of Homeland Security coordinated a violent crackdown is that the DHS does not freelance. The DHS cannot say, on its own initiative, "we are going after these scruffy hippies". Rather, DHS is answerable up a chain of command: first, to New York Representative Peter King, head of the House homeland security subcommittee, who naturally is influenced by his fellow congressmen and women's wishes and interests. And the DHS answers directly, above King, to the president (who was conveniently in Australia at the time).

In other words, for the DHS to be on a call with mayors, the logic of its chain of command and accountability implies that congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.

But wait: why on earth would Congress advise violent militarised reactions against its own peaceful constituents? The answer is straightforward: in recent years, members of Congress have started entering the system as members of the middle class (or upper middle class) – but they are leaving DC privy to vast personal wealth, as we see from the "scandal" of presidential contender Newt Gingrich's having been paid $1.8m for a few hours' "consulting" to special interests. The inflated fees to lawmakers who turn lobbyists are common knowledge, but the notion that congressmen and women are legislating their own companies' profits is less widely known – and if the books were to be opened, they would surely reveal corruption on a Wall Street spectrum. Indeed, we do already know that congresspeople are massively profiting from trading on non-public information they have on companies about which they are legislating – a form of insider trading that sent Martha Stewart to jail.

Since Occupy is heavily surveilled and infiltrated, it is likely that the DHS and police informers are aware, before Occupy itself is, what its emerging agenda is going to look like. If legislating away lobbyists' privileges to earn boundless fees once they are close to the legislative process, reforming the banks so they can't suck money out of fake derivatives products, and, most critically, opening the books on a system that allowed members of Congress to profit personally – and immensely – from their own legislation, are two beats away from the grasp of an electorally organised Occupy movement … well, you will call out the troops on stopping that advance.

So, when you connect the dots, properly understood, what happened this week is the first battle in a civil war; a civil war in which, for now, only one side is choosing violence. It is a battle in which members of Congress, with the collusion of the American president, sent violent, organised suppression against the people they are supposed to represent. Occupy has touched the third rail: personal congressional profits streams. Even though they are, as yet, unaware of what the implications of their movement are, those threatened by the stirrings of their dreams of reform are not.

Sadly, Americans this week have come one step closer to being true brothers and sisters of the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like them, our own national leaders, who likely see their own personal wealth under threat from transparency and reform, are now making war upon us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Illegal immigration

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving; and please take a moment to remember the Nauset, Wampanoag, Narraganset, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pocumtuc, Tunxis, Quinnipiac, Mattabesic, Paugussett, Niantic, Montaukett, Shinnecock, Pequot and Mohegan peoples, who were among the first nations to fall as a result of the European invasions of the Americas.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Going the distance

Scientific American this month has a very good article on some possibilities for NASA's manned space exploration program, written by two scientists involved in robotic deep-space exploration.

They proposed using a combination of the SLS chemical rockets or Delta IV heavy lift and Hall-effect ion drive spaceships to explore the moon, near-earth asteroids, Mars and Phobos. The argument for exploring near-earth asteroids was as a stepping stone for Mars and Phobos, and they were specifically looking at NEO 2008 EV5.

2008 EV5 follows a slightly oblique orbit very similar to earth's, and oscillates from about 1 AU (the distance from the sun to the earth) and 2 AU, at least in the immediate future. Mars at opposition is only about 0.5 AU from earth. My admittedly limited understanding of Hohmann transfer orbits is that a trip to 2008 EV5 or an earth-Trojan should take longer than a trip to Mars. Given that 2008 EV5 is only about 400 meters across, I must confess that I am at a loss to understand the wisdom of establishing 2008 EV5 as a waypoint to Mars. This is either a failing of my own understanding of how one navigates between two objects in different parts of the same orbit (very likely), or else NASA has other reasons for prioritizing a trip to 2008 EV5. My guess is that both are true; ie, I'm misunderstanding the geometry of a same-orbit Hohmann transfer, and NASA has more need of landing on 2008 EV5 than as a test-run for Phobos. My completely uneducated guess is that either NASA is more freaked out about near-earth asteroids than they let on, or that they want congress to think that they're more freaked out about near-earth asteroids than they let on. I lean toward the latter; perhaps at some point I'll bother to post my very own patented conspiracy theory on the subject. Anyway--

Based on the SciAm article and some of the recent posts here on candidates for outmigration, I created a graphic tonight to illustrate the relative distances of the different candidates being discussed. The planets, asteroids and moons themselves are not drawn even close to scale, but the relative distances between them is mostly right. The only exception to this is the distance between the earth and the moon, which is actually so small on the scale of the drawing that it could not be correctly shown at all. Also, the distances between Jupiter and her moons is completely erroneous, I simply included the Galilean moons to illustrate that the body depicted was in fact Jupiter.

1. The moon, and also the L4 and L5 Lagrangian orbits

2. Near-earth asteroid 2008 EV5, and also the earth-Trojans

3. Mars and Phobos

4. Ceres

5. Jupiter and Europa, Callisto and Ganymede

6. Saturn and Enceladus

It becomes apparent that Enceladus, intriguing though it is, is very, very far away. For a new home for our species, Ceres starts looking better all the time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Europa back in the game

NASA announced today the presence of enormous salt-water lakes only several kilometers below the surface ice of Jupiter's moon Europa. From the standpoint of colonization (and also incidentally exobiology), this is vastly preferable to the ocean of salt-water which also exists on Europa, but at some 100 kilometers below the surface ice. This puts Europa back in the running as a plausible candidate for outmigration, and possibly even in the top tier.

With this data, the three best candidates for a permanent and self-sustaining colony are, arguably, Ceres, Europa and Enceladus.

Saturn's moon Enceladus is in some ways the most appealing, but by far the least accessible. At 1.5 BILLION kilometers, it is more than twice the distance to Jupiter/Europa, and six times the distance to Ceres. And it is the smallest of the three candidates. But essentially limitless supplies of water and energy are relatively accessible to anyone living on the surface, and from the standpoint of self-sustainability that's huge.

Europa now meets most of the same criteria, is six times larger than Enceladus (and just a bit smaller than our own moon), and is much closer. The biggest drawback with Europa is still the very high amounts of ionizing radiation from Jupiter that would be experienced on the surface. Burrowing under the ice would provide shielding, but you have to get down there first. It is also possible that we could use another of the Galilean moons such as Callisto as a base-camp while drilling down to to the Europan lakes.

Dwarf planet Ceres is practically in our own backyard, and about twice the size of Enceladus. It too is covered with water ice over a salt-water ocean, but we don't know yet how thick that ice-mantle is. When the Dawn spacecraft arrives there in 2015 we'll know a lot more. Ceres receives ample sunlight for solar power, so even if there were no geothermal energy such as on Europa, or whatever-the-hell is generating 16 gigawatts of energy on Enceladus, it could probably support a substantial colony even if the surface ice had to be melted for water. At this time, I'm inclined to think that Ceres may be our best shot at getting a permanent and self-sustaining colony established quickly, but we'll know a lot more once the Dawn spacecraft starts sending back data.

Many people have speculated that Ceres would be an important stepping-stone for colonization of the outer planets, but she may prove to be a critical destination in her own right.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day 11-11-11

In remembrance of every soldier, sailor, airman and marine, of every nation and of every conflict, have a very happy and safe Veteran's Day.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Four Billion Dollars...

...transferred out of major corporate banks and into credit unions this weekend.

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Horseshoes and hand-grenades

Tuesday, around 3:28pm pst, asteroid 2005 YU 55 is going to pass within the moon's orbit of us. A quarter of a mile (400 meters) in diameter, this is the largest asteroid to pass within the moon's orbit that we have ever known about (certainly lots of bigger ones have come even closer, we were just blissfully unaware of them). We have NEO's every single day, but this is one seriously big son of an accretion disk. If it were to actually hit the earth (don't worry, it won't, at least not in our lifetimes) the equivalent kinetic force would be greater than if every single nuclear warhead on every single missile on every single ballistic missile submarine in every single navy -- US, UK, France, Russia, China and India -- were to successfully detonate at the same location at the same time. Really. Which is still miniscule compared the the K/T asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs (which was some 30 times larger), but, still, this is a big effing rock coming by tomorrow.

This will provide astronomers a very close view of a pretty large asteroid that we won't have to leave home to see, which is valuable. Nearly as useful, it serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that we really need to have the capability to intercept and deflect such objects all the time, not just whenever congress decides that it might be fun to budget for such things.

It will be visible from most of North America Tuesday evening, tracking from Aquila through Pegasus in about 10 hours time, but at a maximum visual magnitude of 11.2 it will require at least a 6" reflector telescope to see. Here's the track, from Sky and Telescope magazine:

Below is a very well done graphic from, with lots more information about this and other large NEOs --

Lesson from Iceland: Let the banks fail

Very interesting analysis from the 2008 Icelandic bank crisis, and Reykjavik's recovery from that amid financial collapse of much of the European Union. Two points stand out in this-- first, prior to the collapse Iceland's government was more or less solvent; second, much of Iceland's success was at least aided by its independence from the Euro. But the principles remain solid, and perhaps it is time to reconsider what it means for an institution to be "too big to fail".


By Haukur Holm | AFP

Three years after Iceland's banks collapsed and the country teetered on the brink, its economy is recovering, proof that governments should let failing lenders go bust and protect taxpayers, analysts say.

The North Atlantic island saw its three biggest banks go belly-up in the October 2008 as its overstretched financial sector collapsed under the weight of the global crisis sparked by the crash of US investment giant Lehman Brothers.

The banks became insolvent within a matter of weeks and Reykjavik was forced to let them fail and seek a $2.25 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

After three years of harsh austerity measures, the country's economy is now showing signs of health despite the current global financial and economic crisis that has Greece verging on default and other eurozone states under pressure.

"The lesson that could be learned from Iceland's way of handling its crisis is that it is important to shield taxpayers and government finances from bearing the cost of a financial crisis to the extent possible," Islandsbanki analyst Jon Bjarki Bentsson told AFP.

"Even if our way of dealing with the crisis was not by choice but due to the inability of the government to support the banks back in 2008 due to their size relative to the economy, this has turned out relatively well for us," Bentsson said.

Iceland's banking sector had assets worth 11 times the country's total gross domestic product (GDP) at their peak.

Nobel Prize-winning US economist Paul Krugman echoed Bentsson.

"Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net," he wrote in a recent commentary in the New York Times.

"Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to maneuver," he said.

During a visit to Reykjavik last week, Krugman also said Iceland has the krona to thank for its recovery, warning against the notion that adopting the euro can protect against economic imbalances.

"Iceland's economic rebound shows the advantages of being outside the euro. This notion that by joining the euro you would be safe would come as news to the Spaniards," he said, referring to one of the key eurozone states struggling to put its public finances in order.

Iceland's example cannot be directly compared to the dramatic problems currently seen in Greece or Italy, however.

"The big difference between Greece, Italy, etc at the moment and Iceland back in 2008 is that the latter was a banking crisis caused by the collapse of an oversized banking sector while the former is the result of a sovereign debt crisis that has spilled over into the European banking sector," Bentsson said.

"In Iceland, the government was actually in a sound position debt-wise before the crisis."

Iceland's former prime minister Geir Haarde, in power during the 2008 meltdown and currently facing trial over his handling of the crisis, has insisted his government did the right thing early on by letting the banks fail and making creditors carry the losses.

"We saved the country from going bankrupt," Haarde, 68, told AFP in an interview in July.

"That is evident if you look at our situation now and you compare it to Ireland or not to mention Greece," he said, adding that the two debt-wracked EU countries "made mistakes that we did not make ... We did not guarantee the external debts of the banking system."

Like Ireland and Latvia, also rescued by international bailout packages and now in recovery, Iceland implemented strict austerity measures and is now reaping the fruits of its efforts.

So much so that its central bank on Wednesday raised its key interest rate by a quarter point to 4.75 percent, in sharp contrast to most other developed countries which have slashed their borrowing costs amid the current crises.

It said economic growth in the first half of 2011 was 2.5 percent and was forecast to be just over 3.0 percent for the year as a whole.

David Stefansson, a research analyst at Arion Bank, told AFP Iceland hiked its rates because it "is in a different place in the economic (cycle) than other countries.

"The central bank thinks that other central banks in similar circumstances can afford to keep interest rates low, and even lower them, because expected inflation abroad is in general quite (a bit) lower," he said.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Remember, remember the Fifth of November

No obvious signs of the Fox News website being hacked, as of 10pm pdt. Curiouser and curiouser.

But in honor of the old Guy we watched the traditional holiday classic "V for Vendetta" on DVD tonight. My mother is Australian of Irish Protestant descent, so Guy Fawkes was part of my upbringing. It seems many Americans never heard of him until that movie came out. The movie popularized the first five lines of the traditional poem, but the version I learned was longer, and went something like this:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I can think of no reason
The Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow.
By providence old Guy was catched
With a lantern and a burning match.
Holler boys, Holler girls, let the bells ring,
Holler boys, holler girls, God save the King!