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Sunday, December 30, 2012


Outside of the maritime community, this hasn't been getting very much press. It is a mess. ===========================================================

ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS 30 December 2012 2100ast

An unmanned mobile oil drilling rig owned by Royal Dutch Shell is adrift -- again -- south of Kodiak Island after it lost towlines Sunday afternoon from two vessels trying to hold it in place against what have been pummeling winds and high seas, according to incident management leaders.

A team of 250 people from the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, Royal Dutch Shell, and one of its contractors was hunkered down Sunday, mainly in Midtown Anchorage's Frontier Building, trying to resolve the ongoing crisis with the Shell-owned drilling rig, the Kulluk.

Before the latest turn for the worse, representatives of the Coast Guard, Shell and the state Department of Environmental Conservation told reporters in a briefing early Sunday afternoon that the situation was critical, but under control.

Then tow lines from the Aiviq and a second support vessel, the Nanuq "separated," the joint command team said in a statement sent out at about 4:30 p.m. The setback happened sometime after 1 p.m., just as commanders were briefing news media on what appeared at that point to be a successful response after a series of failures. They didn't yet know the towlines had broken free, said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith, who is part of the unified incident command team.

A third vessel, the tug Alert, which is usually stationed in Prince William Sound as part of an emergency response system, has arrived on the scene. And a fourth Shell-contracted support ship, the Guardsman, is on location.

"The crew is evaluating all options for reconnecting with the Kulluk," the command team said. Tow lines are still attached to the Kulluk and conceivably could be reattached to the nearby ships, Smith said.

But with its crew evacuated for safety reasons, there's no one on board to tend the winches or maneuver equipment, Sean Churchfield, Shell's incident commander and the company's operations manager for Alaska, told reporters earlier on Sunday.

All decisions, including the evacuation, are being made by the group as a whole, said Capt. Paul Mehler, the Coast Guard's Anchorage-based commander.

The Gulf of Alaska storm has been fierce, with near-hurricane winds on Saturday night, Mehler said. Only a small lull is predicted for Monday morning, according to the National Weather Service. The forecast for Sunday night was 28-foot seas and winds in the range of 50 mph or more, about what it was on Saturday, said meteorologist Bob Clay. Seas and winds are expected to diminish Monday morning, then pick back up later in the day as another storm moves in, he said.

With no towlines securing it in place, the crew-less Kulluk is drifting about 20 miles south of Sitkinak Island, part of the Trinity Islands, south of Kodiak. Smith said early Sunday evening that he had not yet been briefed on how many hours it would take the Kulluk to reach shore if it continues adrift. A number of variables, including currents and wind speed, would affect when and where it hit, if it came to that, he noted. He said he would provide the information when he gets it.

The incident team also must find a safe harbor for the Aiviq, as well as the Kulluk, to undergo inspections and possible repairs before heading south to Everett, Wash., where the Kulluk had been headed for off-season maintenance before the troubles began.

The $290 million, 266-foot diameter Kulluk is a conical-shaped mobile rig that began drilling a single exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this year. But it cannot propel itself, and a series of failures involving the rig began on Thursday during a stormy Gulf of Alaska crossing.

The 360-foot, $200 million Aiviq is a new ship commissioned by Shell for its Arctic work and built and owned by Louisiana-based maritime company Edison Chouest Offshore.

The Kulluk lost its towline from the Aiviq on Thursday. A second tow line was attached for a time, but then early Friday all four engines on the Aiviq failed. The Coast Guard sent the Alex Haley, a 282-foot cutter. It delivered a towline to the Aiviq, which was still attached to the Kulluk, but the sheer mass of the ship and the drilling rig, combined with 40 mph winds and building 35-foot seas, broke the connection and the line became tangled in the cutter's propeller and damaged it. The Alex Haley turned back to Kodiak for repair, but now is back at the Kulluk scene.

The towline mishaps and the engine failures are under investigation, Churchfield said.

On Saturday, the Kulluk's 18-person crew was safely evacuated to Kodiak in two Coast Guard helicopters. The Aiviq's engines were repaired with new fuel injectors, and the Nanuq, also under contract to Shell, put a towline on the Kulluk, for a time. The Aiviq then was running off two engines at a time, as a precaution, officials said Sunday.

Initial reports suggested that contaminated fuel might have caused the engines to malfunction, but that hasn't been confirmed through fuel analysis, Churchfield said.

"I don't really want to speculate as to the causes of the propulsion failure on the Aiviq," he said. "We are looking for the solutions and we will have a full investigation. At this stage I don't have any firm information to pass onto you."

However, the fuel now being used is from a different tank than that in use when the engines failed, said Shell's Smith.

The plan to use just a single ship to tow the Kulluk was reasonable, given the Aiviq's features, said the Coast Guard's Mehler.

"This type of operation is very normal. With the vessel the size of the Aiviq, with the capabilities of the Aiviq, with four engines, it was above and beyond what would be required to be able to tow, even in very extreme conditions," the commander said.

Shell did not have to get Coast Guard approval of its towing plan, because the maritime operation was so routine. But the oil company did consult with the agency as the vessels began their journey, Mehler said.

At the start of Shell's 2012 drilling season, the Aiviq towed the Kulluk from a shipyard in Washington state to Dutch Harbor and then to the Beaufort Sea, where two tugs took over to handle it, Churchfield said.

Two crew members on the Aiviq suffered minor injuries at some point, but both are back at work, Churchfield said.

No oil has been spilled during the incident, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Shell has had a difficult experience as it tries to drill offshore in the Alaska Arctic. It couldn't drill to oil-rich zones because its novel oil spill containment dome was damaged during testing. Its other drilling rig, a converted log carrier called the Noble Discoverer, recently was cited by the Coast Guard for problems with safety and pollution discharge equipment. Mehler ordered it held in Seward while the most serious issues were addressed. While the ship now is free to leave for Seattle, it remains docked in Seward because it is waiting for escort vessels now working on the Kulluk situation, Smith said.

In 1980, in a situation eerily similar to what is happening now, 18 crew members were evacuated off a jack-up drilling rig named the Dan Prince as rough seas in the North Pacific 650 miles south of Kodiak threatened to destroy the unit, according to news reports at the time. Heavy seas prevented crews from attaching a tow line. The rig then sank, according to an online listing of rig disasters.

Read more here:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mayan Zombie Fiscal Apocalypse

Ok, not really. But it is one hell of a storm brewing tonight.

From the National Weather Service, this is for the eastern entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (in the vicinity of the "Romeo" VTS buoy, for those who care about such).



Overnight: E wind 33 to 36 kt becoming W. Winds could gust as high as 55 kt. Rain. Wind waves 6 ft building to 10 ft.

Monday: W wind 39 to 44 kt, with gusts as high as 65 kt. Rain, mainly before 10am. Wind waves around 10 ft.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Smiles, everyone. Smiles!

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why radar will never, ever be obsolete for marine navigation.

The island shown here on Google Maps, and in many other places, doesn't actually exist. It has, apparently, never existed. Really.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Curiosity, killing us all

Yesterday, on NPR, NASA dropped a kind of big bomb, maybe.

John Grotzinger, who is the principal investigator for the Mars rover Curiosity mission for JPL, hinted pretty loudly yesterday that Curiosity had made a discovery of monumental importance. But they couldn't talk abut it just yet. The preliminary results from a series of soil samples taken at Rocknest (pictured above) a few weeks ago, if confirmed, will be "one for the history books."

The NPR article is here, for whatever details there are.


So, lots of space blogs are now speculating that Opportunity has discovered (drum roll, please) Life ... On ... MARS!!!(tm).


So, alright. First off, this wouldn't be the first time that NASA gave a teaser for an announcement that turned out to be something other than the obvious conclusion informed people would likely come to based on the teaser. This isn't even the first time this has happened regarding the possibility of a discovery of life on Mars. It wouldn't even be the first time space blogs, including this one (cough), had made this sort of speculation which later proved wildly erroneous. To their credit, usually the actual announcements are pretty important, just not always as newsworthy to the general public. Remember the arsenic bacteria in Mono Lake? Incredibly important discovery from the standpoint of exobiology, but the average person on the street wasn't likely to care very much. Add to this the sad fact that the NASA budget is very much in the cross-hairs of the Sequestration ("Fiscal Cliff") negotiators, and the possibility that NASA is up to similar shenanigans is not entirely out of the question.

But maybe, just maybe, this is the time that Lucy isn't going to snatch the football away. Maybe.

Okay, let's look at what we actually know here.

Two different laboratories on board Curiosity have now studied soil samples from Rocknest. The first laboratory is called CheMin, which is NASA-ese for Chemistry and Mineralogy. It determines which types of minerals are in a soil sample. The second laboratory, which is the one generating all the excitement, is called SAM, for Sample Analysis at Mars. SAM is designed to analyze the chemical makeup of Martian soil and atmosphere, specifically to determine if there are organic molecules present.

In the past few weeks, these two laboratories have shown that water was once abundant on the surface of Mars (we knew that already, but it was a good confirmation), and that, at least at the sample site, there are not measurable amounts of methane, which on earth is mostly produced by biological processes. What SAM is really looking for is carbon and oxygen, and it has the ability to analyze these using laser spectrometry to determine if the carbon and oxygen it finds is of geological or biological origin.

This is what SAM does. It does not have the ability to directly monitor for metabolic change in the soil chemistry (as the Labeled Release experiment on the Viking missions did back in 1976), but it can and does analyze the basic chemical composition of the soil and atmosphere. Sam has been doing this at Rocknest on Mars for the past several weeks now. And NASA is really, really excited with whatever the preliminary results of that are.

As minimum, one can reasonably conclude that they have in fact found carbon and oxygen which seem to be of biological origin. By itself, that's a pretty big deal, because it would indicate pretty strongly that life of some sort has lived on Mars at some point in its history. That would be an awfully important discovery. But "one for the history books"? Well, yes, for a book about the history of exobiology. But for the average person on the street, probably not all that terribly interesting.

However, and this is purely speculative on my part, if there were really actual living micro-organisms in the soil samples, SAM might detect this as standard ratios of the CHONPS (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur) elements which are the signature of life on earth. Or, as a similar ratio of organic chemicals which replace these, such as arsenic apparently does for some amount of phosphorus in the Mono Lake halobacteria. It is possible that this is what NASA has discovered on Mars this week.

And that would unequivocally be one for the history books.

But we wouldn't know anything else about that life. But that's ok, because once we know that there is definitely microbial life in the Martian soil, we have plenty of means to further study it. The most important of these will be genotyping, assuming that any organisms found there actually have genes to type.

There are essentially two possible (hypothetical) outcomes of this. One is that we will find that we share common ancestry with the Martian micro-organisms, either because they originated on earth, or we originated on Mars, or both Martian and terrestrial life originated from someplace else. Any of these are possible. The other outcome is that Martian life arose on Mars completely independently of terrestrial life, either with its own unique DNA or RNA, or else some other truly alien biochemistry. Either of these outcomes could provide tantalizing clues as to the relative ubiquity of life in the universe.

NASA will be announcing the results of the SAM soil experiments in the first week of December, once the data has been verified and re-verified. Until then, the media and blogs like this one are left to their own guesswork. I'll be posting here as soon as anything is known. Until then...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rocket Science

The brilliant web comic XKCD explains the Saturn V heavy-lift rocket, using only the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language. Besides being funny, it's not a bad approximation of the challenges inherent in communicating in Chinook wawa (which functionally has only about 500 words), and it's also a surprisingly good tutorial on basic rocket design. Not sure how he derived "up goer" for the Roman god Saturn; probably "time god" or "time lord" would have been better, but then it might have been mistaken for a tardis.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Beautiful balloon

For those interested in Felix Baumgartner's attempt to break just about every record associated with ballooning or skydiving, it's being broadcast live now on

It happens, coincidentally, to be the 65th anniversary of Chuck Yeager's breaking of the sound barrier in the Bell X-1.

This attempt today is amazing in itself. However, it is critical research for learning how best to escape spacecraft and space stations in Low Earth Orbit. Think of this as a really elaborate Abandon Ship drill. Very cool.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Warp Drive. For real.

If you've ever read the book The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence M Krauss (and if you haven't, you should!), you already know that in 1994 physicist Miguel Alcubierre proved that a Star Trek-like warp drive was theoretically possible, but would require an insane amount of energy. Interesting, but not altogether useful.

It seems that a solution to this has been found which makes the power requirements for a functional warp drive reasonable and plausible.

The article below, from Space.Com, is poorly organized and disjointed, and appears to have been cut and pasted from a longer press release. Nonetheless, it gives the general sense of the discovery.

If in fact we have the ability to build a drivetrain which propels vessels at speeds which are functionally greater than the speed of light but physically lower than 5% of the speed of light, then interstellar travel is genuinely within our grasp. This research is still in its infancy. But it is the first real indication I've ever seen that we could ever attain supralight transport.

If we can, presumably others can as well. This potentially has enormous ramifications for the Fermi Paradox. Even without supralight drivetrains, the apparent absence of technologically capable extraterrestrial species here on earth is statistically suspect. If warp drive or other technologies can provide feasible faster-than-light travel, the plausibility that we have not been contacted by other worlds becomes vanishingly slim.

Anyway, here's the article from ==========================================

SPACE.COM — A warp drive to achieve faster-than-light travel — a concept popularized in television's Star Trek — may not be as unrealistic as once thought, scientists say.

A warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship, taking advantage of a loophole in the laws of physics that prevent anything from moving faster than light. A concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre; however, subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy.

Now physicists say that adjustments can be made to the proposed warp drive that would enable it to run on significantly less energy, potentially bringing the idea back from the realm of science fiction into science.

An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind.

Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn't being warped at all.

"Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light," explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. "But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light."

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.

"The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation," White told "The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab."

White and his colleagues have begun experimenting with a mini version of the warp drive in their laboratory.

They set up what they call the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center, essentially creating a laser interferometer that instigates micro versions of space-time warps.

"We're trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million," White said.

He called the project a "humble experiment" compared to what would be needed for a real warp drive, but said it represents a promising first step.

And other scientists stressed that even outlandish-sounding ideas, such as the warp drive, need to be considered if humanity is serious about traveling to other stars.

"If we're ever going to become a true spacefaring civilization, we're going to have to think outside the box a little bit, we're going to have to be a little bit audacious," Obousy said.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

New SLS video

New video update for NASA's new Space Launch System.

So, for those folk who are just tuning in, a quick recap. NASA is in the process of building the largest and most powerful rocket of all time, which will take human explorers deeper into space than has ever been previously attempted. SLS will take humans to the nearest asteroids, possibly back to the moon, and eventually to Mars. It will be fully flight-ready by 2021, its first uncrewed test flight is scheduled for 2017.

Oh, and NASA is doing all of this with no budget, cannibalizing spare parts from the space shuttles, the Saturn V and the Orion space capsule which was already being designed for the Constellation project, before it got the budgetary axe.

Yes, Virginia, NASA is going to Mars on a rocket built out of bench-spares. More significant is the fact that nearly two years into this project, and nobody outside of the space industry and folks who follow space blogs like this one have any idea that this is happening.

On the one hand, good on NASA for not wasting lots of taxpayer dollars on advertising. But, really? Look at this video. It's not bad. It's fairly informative, even. But it looks like a low-budget shareholder's promo for some second-tier airplane manufacturer. If NASA were churning out videos like this every month or so it would be less surprising, but I think this is the first SLS promo since the original one back in early 2011.

It's not just that the general public isn't enthusiastic about SLS, if they're even aware of it. NASA itself seems pretty luke-warm on the project. This is understandable, it was foisted upon them by a congress who not only didn't have any answers, didn't even comprehend the questions being asked them. And even if they come in on time and under budget (which, so far, seems quite possible), Elon Musk and SpaceX, with the help of NASA subsidies, will probably land humans on Mars before SLS can. So I can understand why NASA might not be pouring their hearts and souls into this project.

But, in spite of all this, I think SLS will be a pretty good platform, at a pretty good price, and I think it will be a real work-horse for inner solar system exploration. The aircraft company who always dreamed of designing the Concorde is instead building a Boeing 737. Of the two, the 737 was arguably the better aircraft, but it was far less sexy. The SLS is about as un-sexy as a spacecraft could possibly be. But it's going to get the job done, better than much of its competition.

NASA, be proud of the work you're doing with SLS. You have a good, solid, robust platform here which will take us to Mars, and possibly beyond. That's not a small thing.

It ain't love. But it ain't bad.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

50,000 and Serenity

So, a minor milestone; today Strait of Magellan reached a total of 50,000 page-views. Given that the blog is less than 2 years old, I think that's kind of cool. So to celebrate, I bought this:

Ok, that's a lie, the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But this is my new boat, and I like it, and it's my blog so I'm posting it here.

That's right. You can't take the water from me, either.

If you happen to get that last reference, yes the boat was named Serenity before the TV series or movie, and yes we will be redoing the lettering to better reflect the latter. My wife has already found Blue Sun corporate logo fabric for the interior upholstery. Really, she did.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A still more glorious Dawn awaits

The ion-powered Dawn spacecraft is about to leave its orbit of the asteroid Vesta, and begin it's mission to the minor planet Ceres. This has been buried in this week's news cycle, but it's really important. Depending on what Dawn finds, Ceres may rocket to the top of the list of candidates for human colonization. Larger than Enceladus but smaller than Europa, Ceres also seems to have a rocky core surrounded by liquid water covered with ice. It lacks the massive radiation from Jupiter that bombards Europa, and is much closer to Earth than either Europa or Enceladus; close enough even for current solar power cells to function. And unlike our moon or Mars, there is plenty, plenty of water.

It will take almost three years for Dawn to reach Ceres. Stay tuned, it may well prove worth the wait.


PASADENA, Calif. – NASA's Dawn spacecraft is on track to become the first probe to orbit and study two distant solar system destinations, to help scientists answer questions about the formation of our solar system. The spacecraft is scheduled to leave the giant asteroid Vesta on Sept. 4 PDT (Sept. 5 EDT) to start its two-and-a-half-year journey to the dwarf planet Ceres.

Dawn began its 3-billion-mile (5-billion kilometer) odyssey to explore the two most massive objects in the main asteroid belt in 2007. Dawn arrived at Vesta in July 2011 and will reach Ceres in early 2015. Dawn's targets represent two icons of the asteroid belt that have been witness to much of our solar system's history.

To make its escape from Vesta, the spacecraft will spiral away as gently as it arrived, using a special, hyper-efficient system called ion propulsion. Dawn's ion propulsion system uses electricity to ionize xenon to generate thrust. The 12-inch-wide ion thrusters provide less power than conventional engines, but can maintain thrust for months at a time.

"Thrust is engaged, and we are now climbing away from Vesta atop a blue-green pillar of xenon ions," said Marc Rayman, Dawn's chief engineer and mission director, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We are feeling somewhat wistful about concluding a fantastically productive and exciting exploration of Vesta, but now have our sights set on dwarf planet Ceres.

Dawn's orbit provided close-up views of Vesta, revealing unprecedented detail about the giant asteroid. The mission revealed that Vesta completely melted in the past, forming a layered body with an iron core. The spacecraft also revealed the scarring from titanic collisions Vesta suffered in its southern hemisphere, surviving not one but two colossal impacts in the last two billion years. Without Dawn, scientists would not have known about the dramatic troughs sculpted around Vesta, which are ripples from the two south polar impacts.

"We went to Vesta to fill in the blanks of our knowledge about the early history of our solar system," said Christopher Russell, Dawn's principal investigator, based at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). "Dawn has filled in those pages, and more, revealing to us how special Vesta is as a survivor from the earliest days of the solar system. We can now say with certainty that Vesta resembles a small planet more closely than a typical asteroid."

The mission to Vesta and Ceres is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate's Discovery Program, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

UCLA is responsible for the overall Dawn mission science. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Astrophysical Institute are part of the mission's team. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Dawn, visit: and .

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Alden Armstrong, 1930 - 2012

It is an unavoidable reality of my (excellent) maritime employment that at certain times of year my posts to this blog are rather sparse. Ironically, due in part to this, it happens that the title of my last post was a direct paraphrase of the words of Neil Armstrong, who passed away today at the age of 82.

On July 20th of 1969, at 20:17:39 GMT (they didn't call it UTC back then), Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another world. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent only two and a half hours exploring the moon's surface outside the Lunar Module, and then returned to an earth forever changed by them.

I was five years old when Armstrong took his "one small step for man". He was my hero. He still is.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

One small step for robot

This is one of the first images sent back from Mars by the rover Curiosity. It is the rover's own shadow. Much more to come.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


A lot has happened since I've last posted, and it will be a few more days at least before I am able to catch up. I want to at least briefly acknowledge the success of the Chinese mission to its space station, and will post more about that here later; I am very happy to see more players in this new space race.

But the biggest news by far today is the announcement by CERN that they have confirmed the existence of a "new" boson, which is of the correct size to be the elusive Higgs Boson, first proposed in 1964 and critical to the Standard Model of particle physics. To paraphrase Joe Biden, this really is a "big effing deal". I'll be posting more about this as soon as I can, in the mean time, here is the actual press release from CERN, un-mangled by various media outlets. If it seems timid and a bit cagey, remember that only a few months ago CERN erroneously announced that they had observed neutrinos at speeds faster than light. So, they're perhaps to be forgiven for being "twice shy". Here's the press release in its entirety:

CERN experiments observe particle consistent with long-sought Higgs boson

Geneva, 4 July 2012. At a seminar held at CERN1 today as a curtain raiser to the year’s major particle physics conference, ICHEP2012 in Melbourne, the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented their latest preliminary results in the search for the long sought Higgs particle. Both experiments observe a new particle in the mass region around 125-126 GeV.

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage,” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti, “but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication.”

"The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela. “The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks."

“It’s hard not to get excited by these results,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. “ We stated last year that in 2012 we would either find a new Higgs-like particle or exclude the existence of the Standard Model Higgs. With all the necessary caution, it looks to me that we are at a branching point: the observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we’re seeing in the data.”

The results presented today are labelled preliminary. They are based on data collected in 2011 and 2012, with the 2012 data still under analysis. Publication of the analyses shown today is expected around the end of July. A more complete picture of today’s observations will emerge later this year after the LHC provides the experiments with more data.

The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the particle and its significance for our understanding of the universe. Are its properties as expected for the long-sought Higgs boson, the final missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic? The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles from which we, and every visible thing in the universe, are made, and the forces acting between them. All the matter that we can see, however, appears to be no more than about 4% of the total. A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be a bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe that remains obscure.

“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”

Positive identification of the new particle’s characteristics will take considerable time and data. But whatever form the Higgs particle takes, our knowledge of the fundamental structure of matter is about to take a major step forward.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Conan the Bacterium

A couple of months ago I wrote a post entitled "Dune Buggies", about possible microbial life on Mars, and the unlikelihood that such could in any way interact with terrestrial organisms, or vice versa. It turns out, I was not quite correct.

In that post I wrote that "The average surface temperature on Mars is -63° C (-81° F). Rarely, at the equator, temperatures at the very surface reach 20° C (68° F), but even then the temperatures just a few inches above that are sub-arctic. Average barometric pressure on earth is 1013 millibars. Average barometric pressure on Mars is about 6 millibars, which is less than the inside of an early vacuum tube. Martian atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide, with 210 ppm water vapor. Earth's atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with about 25,000 ppm water vapor at the surface." All of this is true. The implication was that any organism which lived comfortably inside a human being could not possibly survive in that environment.

I was wrong. Meet Deinococcus radiodurans.

It is highly resistant to radiation, dehydration, heat, cold, vacuum, and acid. It can survive being nuked so well that scientists have experimented with encoding information into is DNA to survive a nuclear holocaust (starting, ironically, with Disney's song It's a Small World). In other words, it would survive just fine on the surface of Mars.

Oh, and it lives in our poop.

Polyextremophiles such as D radiodurans could in fact cross-contaminate between terrestrial and martian ecosystems. And this, Houston, could be a problem.

Mars One, Take Two

So, I've had a couple days for the Mars One announcement to percolate in my brain a bit. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

About a year ago I posted here about possible motivations for humans to establish a permanent colony on Mars. I have to admit, "reality tv show" never entered my mind, but it may prove to be the single best commercial incentive we have right now to colonize off-world. And they're planning to land boots on Mars over a decade earlier than NASA could. So, tentatively, I'm supporting this.

However, there is a cynical part of me which does not believe that the viewers who boosted RuPaul's Drag Race to the top will have the same enthusiasm for 20+ years of the same four astronauts in the same tiny habitat squabbling over who gets the last grape Tang until the next cargo ship arrives. Certainly it will be the greatest achievement of exploration in the history of our species, but will it actually be interesting to watch? The first launch and first landing will be, for sure. But attentions wane rather quickly.

Remember all the excitement of the Apollo 16 mission? Yeah, neither do I. NASA TV also played with having live cams on the International Space Station. Really, there are only so many ways you can videotape a weightless astronaut drinking a bubble of water through a straw before the novelty and charm wear off. Mars won't even have that going for it.

What about emotional and interpersonal conflicts? Here is a serious dilemma for the show's producers. The types of personalities which will be necessary for the mission to be successful, especially the initial four colonists, are going to be type of consummate professionals who aren't going to permit a lot of personal drama. Great for the mission, lousy for the ratings. Other people's cabin-fever isn't especially interesting to watch either, unless it's directed by Stanley Kubrick.

What about relationship conflicts? Those are always fun to watch. The first issue here is gender division. From the standpoint of entertainment, two males and two females has obvious appeal, for about a month. By which point all of the possible combinations of tabs A and slots B will have been explored, and by the end of the sixth month or so everyone will be settled down like old married folk. Great for a new colony, lousy for ratings. A new shipment every 26 months of "fresh meat" probably helps, but Hohmann transfer orbits don't coincide especially well with Sweeps Week.

But, there's a problem even with this. As NASA has been discovering with the ISS, males are not well adapted to space travel. It is unclear why certain low-gravity ailments such as papilledema affect men and not women, but nonetheless they seem to, and having half your crew arrive on Mars permanently blind would be disastrous. So, hopefully, they will be smart enough to send all-female crews. Which will probably garner a rather different viewership, but that's what it is. The other advantage of an all-female crew, from the standpoint of establishing a permanent colony, is that twice the number of uteri doubles the number of potential native colonists. It may well be that the first men on Mars will be born there. And will have two mommies.

Probably more interesting from a viewer's standpoint than the day-to-day rigors of colonization itself will be the selection and training process for the colonists while still on earth. Even if they start out with one hundred candidates, only four can be selected. That has potential for some real entertainment. But once they get to Mars, nobody gets to vote anyone else out of the habitat. We hope.

This raises another question which bears consideration. When interest in the show wanes and the ratings fail and the money runs out, what happens to the colonists? Do they then become the wards of NASA to continue providing supply ships to them indefinitely? Assuming that the colony otherwise thrives, it will only be a few seasons before it is far too large to bring back to earth quickly. Food production will of course be a priority, but it is almost inconceivable that the first generation or two of Martian horticulture will be able to keep up with population growth, so food will need to be supplemented from earth on a pretty regular basis. Assuming four new colonists from earth every 26 months, and only one new baby born on Mars each year, eleven years after the initial four astronauts land on Mars the colony will be 35 people strong. That's a respectable start. But it's also an awful lot of mouths to feed on a world which cannot support terrestrial plants and animals.

Manufactured goods will also need to be imported from earth, at least at first. I don't know what the manufacturing facilities look like to make a single space suit, but I'll bet it's more than can be carried by any existing rocket, or easily fabricated out of Mars rocks.

The Mars to Stay concept has been around for a long time now, and I've always been a fan of it. However, there is at least one aspect of the Mars One method of achieving this which I find pretty amusing. I call it the crappy-camper syndrome, and Mars One exemplifies it.

Let' say I wanted to go camping on the Oregon coast with three of my friends. There are a number of ways we could accomplish that. First off, we could hike there with little or no provisions, choosing instead to wildcraft and live off the land. Easy enough to do, on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains. Or, we could backpack a little bit heavier, bring freeze-dried food and small tents with us. Or, we could pack up our car with food and a bigger tent, and pitch the tent at a campground and cook the food we brought on a camp stove. Or, we could park a camper with all of the amenities of home at the campsite, and just day-hike around a little bit (and annoy the hell out of the other campers with our generator). Or, if the camper with the hot running water and the refrigerator and the wifi and the satellite tv was still too much like roughing it, we could just find a Motel 6.

This is the Mars One method. First they're going to send robots to build the motel, and the telecommunications infrastructure so that there's always a good television feed, and massive solar panels to ensure that there's plenty of power for everything. Cargo ships full of stores will be there already waiting for the the colonists. Once the colonists finally arrive, the robots which are not actively involved in building more infrastructure can be used as dune-buggies. In addition to lower gravity, each of the beds in the colony will have a coin-operated vibration function, to help the colonists relax.

Okay, I just made up that last part. But you get the idea. Mars One is based out of Holland, and it's hard to imagine a Dutch company settling another planet any other way. And who better than the Dutch to attempt such a thing? Exploration for profit is one of the things they've always done best.

One way Mars One differs from other Mars settlement projects is that there is less need for mission specialists, because so far as I can tell there isn't really any mission at all, other than set up a colony and survive, and get good ratings. A few skill sets will be essential. Contrary to the belief of certain writers who have never landed an aircraft of docked a large boat or ship, one of each crew will need to be a very skilled pilot to be able to safely land at the prepared site. This isn't a job which can be relegated to the autopilot.

Also, one of the original four will need to be a physician (probably specializing in in-vitro fertilization and midwifery or obstetrics, but also low gravity issues and sub-Armstrong limit atmospheric exposure accidents). One advantage of the Mars to Stay approach is that although the colonists bone and muscle tissue will atrophy under the weaker Martian gravity, this won't matter because they won't ever be returning to earth. Another member of the original crew will need to be a very competent engineer to ensure everything keeps running properly. Everyone on all of the crews will need to be trained in horticulture and husbandry. Hopefully they'll get some scientists along the way as well, but that doesn't really seem to be the point of this exercise.

So what exactly is the point of the exercise? Mostly, so far as I can tell, entertainment. Which may be as good a reason as any to go to a planet which otherwise doesn't have all that much to offer. Absent the impetus of a Cold War, maybe this is what it takes to start colonizing offworld. While this certainly does not paint a flattering picture of our global priorities in this early part of the 21st century, it does seem to paint a fairly accurate one.

I had originally planned to title this post Dutch Lesbians on Mars and Other Stories, but I don't want international copyright laws to deprive the good people at Mars One of an awesome title for their show. So, Mars One, this is my gift to you. Godspeed, and goddess bless.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mars One

This is a promotional video from a company calling itself Mars One. They plan to start a human colony on Mars, with the first colonists arriving there in April of 2023. Less than eleven years from now. They will start with four colonists, and then add four more colonists every two years. Really.

Oh, and it's going to be a reality tv show.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shooting Venus

Contrary to all weather predictions from both NOAA and Environment Canada, the skies in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on Vancouver Island were crystal clear this afternoon for the Venus transit. I brought my sextant with me on the boat just in case, it proved to be an excellent solar telescope.

After we passed the Romeo buoy I got the idea to try to shoot Venus during the transit as a celestial Line of Position. The boat was bouncing in the seas pretty well and I had to shoot through one of the wheelhouse windows, and I only had time for one very sloppy sight. My intercept turned out to be 0.8 nautical miles from my GPS position, meaning I was very lucky. Here's the raw data:

Watch Time: 16:58:04 pdt (+7), 5 June 2012 Height of Eye: 20 ft Instrument Correction: 0.0'

GPS Position: 48° 18.4'N 123° 04.6'W Course Over Ground: 303°T Speed Over Ground: 27.4 knots

Wind: 25 knots westerly Seas: 4 ft

Sextant Height (Hs): 38° 51.2'

Intercept: 0.8 nm Away Zn: 261.2° T

The red dot in the illustration is the actual GPS position of the boat, and the green line is the Line of Position for Venus.

All in all, a very good day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

That's my soul up there

If you're in the Seattle area and hoping to view the transit of Venus across the face of the sun today, it will be beginning around 3pm and continuing through sunset. It looks like NOAA is expecting around 75% cloud cover from about 5pm on, so we have some chance of getting lucky and seeing it. I'm working an afternoon shift on the boat, and will be bringing my sextant for the occasion. Something which many people found disturbing eight years ago when this happened was the realization of just how very tiny this planet (which happens to be roughly the same size as Venus) is. I think it's good thing to contemplate. Later this summer Venus will be bright enough to cast a shadow here on earth. Hopefully by then we'll have some clearer skies to be able to appreciate that!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

More on SLS

This is a pretty good infographic from about NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS). I've read a lot of criticisms of the SLS lately, and some of the criticisms certainly have some merit; these are the perils of a space program which is at the mercy of an utterly dysfunctional Congress. However, I think that as this comes together, NASA is going to have a very good and functional platform here. See how NASA's new mega rocket, the Space Launch System, measures up for deep space missions in this infographic.
Source: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lift off

They did it. I slept through it. Alas.

And you, young Elon; we shall watch your career with great interest.

No, seriously. This is just a teaser-trailer for what SpaceX has in mind. They are already developing the Falcon Heavy, which will carry twice the payload of the Space Shuttle. And they seem to have every intention of beating NASA to Mars. Good for them! I would love to see NASA get out of the cargo industry and be able to focus on deep space exploration. I'll bet NASA would like that, too.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Seattle WA, Astronomer's Paradise

Today in Seattle we are in for an especially rare treat. While the rest of the country is only going to see a small part of the sun eclipsed by the moon, here we're going to see the entire sky eclipsed by stratus clouds!!!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Boldly Going

For those who were crazy enough to stay up last night for the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon space capsule, only to have the launch aborted at (literally) the last second, it's reasonable to be a bit disappointed.

But really, this launch scrub is actually an excellent thing. The monitoring computers caught a potential problem and shut down the launch instantaneously. If commercial space travel is going to succeed, this sort of automatic failsafe is absolutely critical. Because the NASA track record of two catastrophic failures out of five operational vehicles is simply not going to work for regular commercial flights with paying passengers.

Let's look at the numbers here. The entire Space Shuttle program from 1981 to 2011 had a total of 135 flights spread between five vehicles, two of which (Challenger, STS-51-L and Columbia, STS-107) ended catastrophically. In other words, 0ne and a half percent of all Space Shuttle missions were lost.

In 2010 the International Civil Aviation Organisation(ICAO) reported a little over 30 million scheduled commercial airline flights worldwide. If commercial airlines had the same failure rate as the Space Shuttle, that would mean 450,000 airline disasters per year, or 1,233 airline disasters per day, or 51 airline disasters per hour. Or put another way, every minute and ten seconds would see another commercial airliner crashing with 100% fatalities.

Put yet another way, assuming an average payload of 130 passengers plus crew per flight (about average for a Boeing 737), that amounts to nearly 60,000,000 fatalities per year as the direct result of commercial airline disasters. Which is just a little less than 1% of the entire population of the planet. So out of every hundred people on the planet, one would die every year in an airline disaster. Probably if this were the case, nobody would ever fly.

The actual number, incidentally, is more like 1,000 fatalities per year, including all non-military fixed-wing aircraft carrying more than six people. As opposed to 24,000 fatalities per year due to lightning strikes. Really, you are 24 times more likely to die from a lightning strike than you are in an airline crash. Those odds are pretty good,

For commercial space travel to ever become popular and commonplace, a safety record much more like that of commercial air travel will need to be established. It seems that SpaceX is making very significant progress in this direction, many kudos to them for this.

Don't worry, Mr. Musk. We'll stay up late again on Tuesday.


In less than an hour, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is going to lift off with the Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. If it is successful, it will truly usher in a new era of space travel. The only thing that compares to this is the maiden flight of the first DC3, which was the dawn of commercial aviation as we know that today.

Who needs sleep?

I'm going to be following it here--

But it will also be streaming live on NASA TV.

Annular Eclipse

If you happen to be in the Seattle area this Sunday, from 5:30pm to 7:23pm, we have a chance to see a partial eclipse of the sun. The maximum will be at 6:18pm. At this time if you measure the distance from the horizon to the sun, and look that same distance above the sun and a little t the left, there is a pretty good chance you will also see Venus.

The weather is not looking especially promising here, but I'll be bringing my sextant with me to work just in case.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sextants for Venus

Next month (June 5 or 6 depending on where you live) the transit of Venus across the face of the sun will be visible for much of the planet. A lot of different sites have been discussing various ways to watch this once-in-a-lifetime event (actually twice in our lifetime, because Venus transits occur in couplets spaced eight years apart), such as pinhole viewers and special filters for binoculars and telescopes. All of which work fine.

However, earlier this week I was practicing some sunlines with my Astra 3b sextant, and I noticed that the large sunspot group AR 1476 was quite visible. Given that any time Venus is visible (even in broad daylight) it is very easy to see its planetary disk with a 4x40 sextant telescope, and given that during the transit Venus will be about 67,000,000 miles closer to earth than it is during apparent aphelion, it should be very easy to observe the transit using a standard marine sextant with its sun filters in place. If you happen to have a 7x35 scope for your sextant, the viewing will be that much better, but this is not at all necessary.

To use your sextant as a solar telescope, zero the index arm, and ensure that the filters are on both the index mirror and the horizon glass. Then, just look directly at the sun through the sextant telescope. Start with too many filters and then start taking them away until you can see the sun as a crisp disk. Do NOT look at sun unfiltered!! Note that the sextant in the graphic above does NOT have adequate filtering to safely look at the sun; it is a costume piece from a steampunk website, not an actual working sextant.

If you happen to live here in Seattle, you may have the added advantage of having the sun further filtered by dense layers of nimbostratus. Because in Seattle, that's how we roll.

Will be posting more about the transit soon, meanwhile there is much information here (click on image then right click and select "view image" to enlarge):

Friday, April 27, 2012

Cassini update


These raw, unprocessed images of Saturn's moons Enceladus and Tethys were taken on April 14, 2012, by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini flew by Enceladus at an altitude of about 46 miles (74 kilometers). This flyby was designed primarily for the ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyze, or "taste," the composition of the moon's south polar plume as the spacecraft flew through it. Cassini's path took it along the length of Baghdad Sulcus, one of Enceladus' "tiger stripe" fractures from which jets of water ice, water vapor and organic compounds spray into space. At this time, Baghdad Sulcus is in darkness, but that was not an obstacle for another instrument, the composite infrared spectrometer, which can see features by their surface temperatures and which also took measurements during this flyby.

As soon as daylight passed into the spacecraft's remote sensing instruments' line of sight, Cassini's cameras acquired images of the surface. The wide-angle-camera image included in the new batch, taken from around the time of closest approach, has some smearing from the movement of the spacecraft during the exposure, but still shows the surface in vivid detail.

Cassini's cameras also imaged Enceladus' south polar plume at a high phase angle as the satellite appeared as a thin crescent and the plume was backlit.

After the Enceladus encounter, Cassini passed the moon Tethys with a closest approach distance of about 5,700 miles (9,100 kilometers). This was Cassini's best imaging encounter with Tethys since a targeted encounter in September 2005. The 2005 encounter, with a closest approach distance of about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers), provided the images of Tethys with the best resolution and captured views of the side of Tethys that faces Saturn in its orbit. This new encounter examined the opposite side of Tethys, providing some of the highest-resolution images of the side that faces away from Saturn. Cassini acquired a 22-frame mosaic of this side, which features the large impact basin named Odysseus. Scientists will use these new data in conjunction with images from previous encounters to create digital elevation maps of the moon's surface.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations team is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. JPL is a division of Caltech.

Dream Chaser

Yet another commercial space venture gone very right: Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser. If you think it's just NASAs HL-20 Spaceplane concept redone, well, it is. I remember when they were developing this concept at Langley back in the early 1990s. For a space taxi to the International Space Station and other LEO destinations, I think this is superb.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gold Rush

Two press releases from two different commercial ventures today, each announcing projects to mine for platinum and other minerals in space.

Seattle's own Planetary Resources debuted its program to mine near-earth asteroids for platinum and a water, and Moon Express in California unveiled their plan to mine the moon for the same things.

A while back I wrote about different scenarios which could lead to permanent colonization of other worlds within our solar system. At the time I specifically discounted off-world mining as a major motivator.

From December 13, 2010: "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."

So much for my powers of prognostication!

The rationale is that there are some single asteroids with more accessible platinum than all the platinum on the surface of the earth combined. My first thought on this is, if this works, I'm really glad I never invested in platinum. I'm just old enough to remember when amethyst was considered a precious gemstone, before the massive deposits were fund in Brazil. Now kids can buy fist-sized chunks of it in science-center gift shops with their baby-sitting money. If these commercial operations are successful, platinum could similarly cease to be a precious metal. But it might make a nice building material.

Will be posting much more about this, soon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Daisy and the Trillion Trees

In 1983 James Lovelock and Andrew Watson created a computer simulation called "Daisyworld". The premise was an ultra-simplified ecosystem, a world inhabited by only two species, white daisies and black daisies. Affecting this world's climate was the single factor of its sun's heat. The high-albedo white daisies reflect sunlight and the low-albedo black daisies absorb sunlight. The "monkey wrench" in the system is that the sun is actually slowly becoming hotter.

So, as the simulation begins, the sun's radiation is too small to germinate either the white or black daisies, but the surface of the planet is covered with evenly distributed seeds of both black and white daisies. As the sun becomes hotter and the world heats up, eventually the world becomes warm enough for the black daisies to germinate and bloom. The black flowers absorb the sun's heat, causing the world to warm even more rapidly, until it is warm enough for the white daisies to also germinate and bloom. The white flowers reflect the sunlight and begin to lower the world's temperature. As the sun continues to heat up to a level which is uncomfortable for the daisies, the white flowers, which are better able to cool themselves, out-compete the black flowers. The greater the surface-area of the world that is covered by white daisies, the greater the cooling effect of the white flowers. In this way, the white and black flowers work in tandem to regulate the temperature to a level which is comfortable for all daisies. Eventually the sun heats up beyond the ability of the white daisies to regulate it, and all of the daisies die. If, however, the sun's heat remains more or less constant, the populations of white and black daisies will equilibrate in such a way as to maintain an optimum climate for the daisies. In this way, rather than naturally selecting to adapt to the environment, the daisies modify their environment to fit their own needs.

Later generations of the Daisyworld program added many more layers of complexity (atmosphere, herbivorous and carnivorous animals, etc), but each iteration of complexity actually increases the world's ability to self-regulate.

Here is a diagram of this first Daisyworld test, in 1983:

It is serendipitous, only, that this model happens to address global warming. Lovelock and Watson could have chosen any number of variables, and the problem of anthropogenic climate change was only vaguely understood at the time. Nonetheless, it serves admirably to illustrate a possible solution to the current global warming crisis.

There are four things we know for certain about the current global warming situation.

1) It is happening, and it is the largest and fastest increase in global temperatures since eukaryotic life has existed on earth.

2) It is happening mostly as the result of human activity, especially the combination of the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

3) If left unmitigated, it is the single most likely cause of the extinction of the human species. If current trends continue, earth will be uninhabitable by human life by the end of this century. More importantly, there is a very real possibility that anthropogenic global warming will (if it has not done so already) trigger a runaway climatological feedback-loop which will continue to increase global temperatures long after humans are extinct. The worst-case scenario, which is unfortunately quite plausible, would result in earth becoming a hellishly hot Venus-like world devoid of all liquid water and all life, within about 600 years.

4) There are three foreseeable outcomes for the human population from this; mitigation, outmigration or extinction.

This blog has spent a lot of time exploring the possibility of outmigration, and I do believe that this is a critical step to ensure the survival of our species, and other terrestrial species. However, in the very short amount of time we have before this planet is no longer habitable, we would only be able to successfully evacuate a tiny fraction of our population. In order for the majority of humans to survive, we must directly and immediately mitigate the increase in global temperatures.

The good news is, we can. And we don't have to wait for governments or corporations to take the lead; we can do it ourselves, right now, easily and inexpensively.

As a very quick summary, the problem is this. Short-wave radiation from the sun (insolation, with an "o") enters the atmosphere, heating both the atmosphere and the earth's surface. Some of this is reflected directly back into space, both by the earth's surface or by clouds. Some of it is re-radiated as long-wave radiation from the earth and air back into space as well. Some of it, however, is trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gasses ("insulation", with a "u") such as carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane. For a very long time, this insolation/insulation cycle was in a state of equilibrium. Now, however, the combination of an extraordinary amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution by the burning of fossil fuels, and the diminished ability of trees to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere due to deforestation, has created an overabundance of CO2 in our atmosphere. This increases the greenhouse effect, which raises temperatures, which evaporates water which increases the greenhouse effect even more which further raises temperatures, which kills off trees which reduces the ability of forests to scrub CO2 out of the system which increases greenhouse CO2 which increases temperatures, etc.

Freeman Dyson, the same brilliant mind who invented a starship to reach Alpha Centauri in 88 years time back in 1957 (the Orion nuclear-pulse starship, I've written quite a bit about it in this blog) has proposed a simple and elegant solution to this problem.

In order to stop catastrophic global warming, we simply need to plant one trillion trees.

Right now.


Yes, it sounds like a lot. But we have over seven billion people on the planet. That works out to just under 143 trees per person. If every man, woman and child on planet earth were to plant just two trees every five days for one year, even with no reduction in our usage of fossil fuels we would actually be in some danger of shocking the climate into a mini ice-age.

Our planet has a remarkable ability to self-regulate its ecosystems. But it only works if all the "daisies" are there to do their part of the regulating.

Yes, it would actually be more helpful to plant all 143 trees at an optimal time for planting them. You can start them from seeds, just pick up a couple handfuls of seeds of some kind of tree which is indigenous to your area, and plant them in an place that they are likely to grow. If you are ridiculously slow about it, it might take you a couple of hours to do so. Then, walk away and forget about them. This isn't difficult. Entire forests have been successfully planted by a single individual.

Of course, the very best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. Barring that, "today" is an awfully good second best.

Happy Arbor Day, whenever that happens to be where you are.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dune Buggies

Possible nanobacteria embedded in Martian meteorite

There are in this world a small number of very fortunate people who are able to make an honest and decent living by writing blogs. Good on them, that's an impressive accomplishment. I, on the other hand, have never made a dime writing this blog. Which is fine; this is a hobby for me, and I make my living in other ways which I love and which I think are at least as cool as blogging. However, one of the realities of the fact that I am gainfully employed in the maritime industry is that 1) there are occasionally longish gaps in this blog, some of which occur at times that I might otherwise want to contribute to it and 2) sometimes when I finally am in front of a computer I am unable to find links to news articles and other things which occurred when I did not have access to the internet.

As a rule I try to source anything I post here which I myself do not write. Due to the aforementioned, with apologies, this won't be one of those times.

So. Somewhere in the past week, I saw an article (believe it or not, I don't think it was Fox News this time) discussing the current NASA budget. Specifically it was discussing the fact that prior to landing humans on Mars, we want a robot probe to bring a sample of Martian soil back to earth to analyze for possible microbial life.

This much is essentially true.

However, the article then went on to state that the reason for this is that NASA is concerned that martian microbes might bear disease which could infect human explorers.

Oh dear.

I am, for the record, not a biologist, so perhaps my understanding of such things is too limited. But it seems to me rather unlikely that an organism which has evolved over millions of years to thrive on a parched, frozen and nearly airless world would find the warm, wet interior of a human body a very hospitable place.

On earth, disease organisms tend to be very host-species specific, and co-evolutionary with their hosts. There are a few diseases such as rabies which are transmissible between different mammals, and still fewer diseases which are transmissible between endothermic vertebrates (such as avian influenza). But this is not the general rule. Veterinarians do not need to be nearly so cautious about fluid-borne pathogens as their human-medicine counterparts, for this very reason.

Even more rare on earth are pathogens which are not transmitted by other organisms, but rather directly from the environment. Amoebic dysentery is an example of this, where a prokaryote which thrives in warm, still water also happens to thrive, unsurprisingly, in the human body. Trichophyton (athlete's foot, ringworm etc) and other fungal infections also require warm, wet environments.

Similarly, on earth there have been many examples of organisms from one region being introduced into a different region and thriving, even in some cases out-competing native organisms of similar niches. One of the most extreme examples of this is kudzu, an ornamental ivy from Japan which now threatens to eradicate most of the US states in the southeast (although probably not quickly enough to have any beneficial effect on the 2012 elections). Again, the new temperate environment was only slightly different from the old temperate environment.

When we relocate species from their native environment to a radically different one, even within the same climatological zone, we find a very different outcome. Consider two terrestrial vertebrate apex-predators, the Bengal tiger and the great white shark. A healthy adult great white shark deposited in the grasslands below the Himalayas is probably not going to successfully out-compete the native tigers. Similarly, a healthy adult Bengal tiger relocated to the middle of the Indian ocean is not going to seriously impinge upon the shark's hunting grounds. And yet, these two environments are remarkably similar, in terms of temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, gravity, environmental chemistry, solar and cosmic radiation; even the length of the day and year are similar. More importantly, the organisms themselves are remarkably similar. Form does, after all, follow function, and they also have a common evolutionary ancestor. And yet, neither can survive for more than a few minutes in the other's native habitat.

Now, consider Mars.

The average surface temperature on Mars is -63° C (-81° F). Rarely, at the equator, temperatures at the very surface reach 20° C (68° F), but even then the temperatures just a few inches above that are sub-arctic. Average barometric pressure on earth is 1013 millibars. Average barometric pressure on Mars is about 6 millibars, which is less than the inside of an early vacuum tube. Martian atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide, with 210 ppm water vapor. Earth's atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with about 25,000 ppm water vapor at the surface.

Martian life, if such exists, cannot survive in earth's atmosphere, or within the bodies of organisms which evolved within that atmosphere. Just as importantly, terrestrial organisms cannot survive on Mars. In the case of Mars, we do not need a "microbial Prime Directive". We could bombard Mars with terrestrial bacteria for weeks, and within minutes of their landing on the Martian surface they would all be dead and frozen. Similarly, we do not need to worry about an "Andromeda Strain" being returned from Mars to earth. The greatest difficulty will be keeping any organisms alive long enough to study them.

Cassini flies through Enceladus plumes

This happened yesterday, no report yet on what they found. For those unfamiliar with the Tiger Stripes, it's basically a 16 gigawatt power source (like, large enough to power Los Angeles) at the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus, where no such thing should be.
Meanwhile, I'm looking at this photo from December 2009. Several of you have already made the observation, but this particular photo kind of drives the point home. I'm not typically one to see random shapes in things and assume intelligent design, but, really this just doesn't seem like a naturally occurring thing.

Less than three weeks after its last visit to the Saturnian moon Enceladus, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft returns for an encore. At closest approach on April 14, the spacecraft will be just as low over the moon’s south polar region as it was on March 27 -- 46 miles, or 74 kilometers.

Like the last, this latest flyby is mainly designed for Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which will “taste” the particles in the curious jets spraying from the moon’s south polar region. Combined with the March 27 flyby and a similar flyby on Oct. 1, 2011, this close encounter will provide a sense of the jets’ three-dimensional structure and help determine how much they change over time.

On Cassini’s outbound leg, the spacecraft will pass by another Saturnian moon, Tethys, at a distance of about 6,000 miles (9,000 kilometers). The composite infrared spectrometer will look for patterns in Tethys’ thermal signature. Other instruments will study the moon’s composition and geology. The imaging cameras are expected to obtain new views of Enceladus and Tethys.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit: and .

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Individual Mandate, circa 1798

As our Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the Individual Mandate provision of the Affordable Health Care Act, it's worth looking at what the founding fathers themselves thought of it. This was passed by president John Adams, the same radical who stated that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".

Wth July,
1798.CHAP. [94.] An act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen.

§ 1. Be it enacted, Sfc.
That from and after the first day of September next, the master or owner of every ship or vessel of the United States, arriving from a foreign port into any port of the United States, shall, before such ship or vessel shall be admitted to an entry, render to the collector a true account of the number of seamen that shall have been employed on board such vessel since she was last entered at any port in the United States, and shall pay, to the said collector, at the rate of twenty cents per month for every seaman so employed ; which sum he is hereby authorized to retain out of the wages of such seamen.

§ 2. That from and after the first day of September next, no collector shall grant to any ship or vessel whose enrollment or license for carrying on the coasting trade has expired, a new enrollment or license, before the master of such ship or vessel shall first render a true account to the collector, of the number of seamen, and the time they have severally been employed on board such ship or vessel, during the continuance of the license which has so expired, and pay to such collector twenty cents per month for every month such seamen have been severally employed as aforesaid ; which sum the said master is hereby authorized to retain out of the wages of such seamen. And if any such master shall render a false account of the number of men, and the length of time they have severally been employed, as is herein required, he shall forfeit and pay one hundred dollars.

§ 3. That it shall be the duty of the several collectors to make a quarterly return of the sums collected by them, respectively, by virtue of this act, to the secretary of the treasury ; and the president of the United States is hereby authorized, out of the same, to provide for the temporary relief and maintenance of sick, or disabled seamen, in the hospitals or other proper institutions now established in the several ports of the United States, or in ports where no such institutions exist, then in such other manner as he shall direct:
Provided, that the moneys collected in anyone district, shall be expended within the same.

§4. That if any surplus shall remain of the moneys to be collected by virtue of this act, after defraying the expense of such temporary relief and support, that the same, together with such private donations as may be made for that purpose, (which the president is hereby authorized to receive,) shall be invested in the stock of the United States, under the direction of the president;and when, in his opinion, a sufficient fund shall be accumulated, he is hereby authorized to purchase or receive cessions or donations of ground or buildings, in the name of the United States, and to cause buildings, when necessary, to be erected as hospitals for the accommodation of sick and disabled seamen.

§5. That the president of the United States be, and he is hereby, authorized to nominate and appoint, in such ports of the United States as he may think proper, one or more persons, to be called directors of the marine hospital of the United States, whose duty it shall be to direct the expenditure of the fund assigned for their respective ports, according to the third section of this act; to provide for the accommodation of sick and disabled seamen, under such general instructions as shall be given by the president of the United States for that purpose, and also,subject to the like general instructions, to direct and govern such hospitals, as the president may direct to be built in the respective ports : and that the said directors shall hold their offices during the pleasure of the president, who is authorized to fill up all vacancies that may be occasioned by the death or removal of any of the persons so to be appointed. And the said directors shall render an account of the moneys received and expended by them, once in every quarter of a year, to the secretary of the treasury, or such other person as the president shall direct; but no other allowance or compensation shall be made to the said directors, except the payment of such expenses as they may incur in the actual discharge of the duties required by this act.
[Approved, July
16, 1798.]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Spring!

Due in part to the leap-year, this is the earliest vernal equinox since 1896; 2216pdt this evening, March 19th.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Erin go bragh

Above is the lighthouse on Inishtrahull (Inis TrĂ¡ Tholl, Island of the Hollow Beach, I think). Years ago when I was sailing out of Holy Loch Scotland, Inishtrahull was our landfall light when returning from patrol in the Atlantic. It's the northernmost landfall of both Irelands, and part of county Donegal, from which my family originates.

To all of Ireland and to all the Irish; Gael and Saxon, Catholic and Protestant, Pagan and Jewish, upon the Isle and abroad, by birth, by descent, by marriage or by choice. Have a safe, peaceful and blessed St Patrick's Day.

Beannachd leibh!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Size Matters

In our celestial navigation classes, I always stress that the inherent flaw of utilizing spherical trigonometry on a body which is not actually a sphere introduces navigation errors many times larger than those introduced by imperfections in our instruments, or rounding errors in our logarithmic tables. This happens to be true, but I had never bothered to actually quantify this until yesterday. One of my coworkers recently sat for his 500 ton Master's license, and one of the questions he was asked was the great-circle circumference of the earth. Presumably the answer the USCG was looking for was 21,600 nautical miles, which is just 360° x 60' of arc. Which would be true, if the earth happened to be a sphere. Which, of course, it isn't.

Along any of earth's meridians, the circumference is about 21,603 nm, which is pretty close to the abstract spherical circumference. Along the equator, however, the earth's circumference is about 21,639 nm. 39 nautical miles is about 45 statute miles, or 72 kilometers. A navigation error of this magnitude is far from trivial.

Fortunately, by the nature of the way celestial navigation is performed, the greatest distance we ever have to worry about is 1/4 of the circumference of the earth, and this in turn limits our possible position error to 1/4 of that distance.

So, here's the very worst case imaginable. You are somewhere on the equator, and you take sights of the stars Mintaka and Polaris at the moment that both of these objects are just touching the horizon. Let's ignore all of the other reasons why this is a really bad idea, and also ignore the very large error in atmospheric refraction which would also occur in this case. We see that the actual geographic position of Polaris is only six tenths of a mile further away than our standard sight reduction would tell us, but Mintaka is nearly ten miles further away. Yes, ten. And even if we shoot Mintaka at the more reasonable altitude of 45°, the error is still in the neighborhood of 5 nautical miles.

By extension, if we are in the tropics, all celestial bodies on the equinoctial will be in error by as much as ten nautical miles, and if we are in temperate latitudes they may still be in error by as much as five nautical miles. From the standpoint of ocean navigation this isn't horrible. But it does give some perspective on the relative importance of precision in celestial navigation, as opposed to accuracy.