Category Archives: Space news

NASA views

I guess the good news is that NASA is still funding JPL missions to the outer planets. I’m a bit disappointed in their engine selection, some of their mission choices, but overall, it looks like decent return on investment.

This is a view of Pluto. Nothing too exciting, really. There is a certain uniformity in the ice flows that looks artificial, or at least weirdly large-scale crystal formations. Maybe it is just a feature of liquid flow in a very consistent environment. Maybe if we were closer, could get better resolution, we’d see the same pattern going down, showing natural fractal-ization.

So, any point to all this? yes. Choices matter. We do have information on Pluto because NASA has a budget and some will to use it. Most of the money is trapped in bureaucracy, much of the rest goes to Goddard for Earth exploration, but a little goes to JPL for its regular “big mission.”


Getting a nuclear reactor off the ground is still impossible, due to the Greens. A political choice to demonize nuclear power as a way of reducing the spread of nuclear weapons. Weapons are made in laboratories, not reactors. I keep hoping we’ll get sense in the US, but I don’t see much sign of that happening. Without 1) better launch technology or 2) refueling options. There isn’t much hope of a chemical rocket getting good results in the outer system. Too much Delta V to overcome. I’m still betting on a good nuclear reactor and ion drive for future deep-space missions. I guess I shouldn’t hold my breath.

Space Mining

asteroidsCongress Passes the Space Act,411747

Space Mining is now legal.

So, technically, you can go mine your asteroid and bring home the materials for profit. A few small problems:

  1. No spaceship can get to the asteroids right now
  2. No mining ships have even been seriously designed
  3. No fuel depots in space
  4. No customer base for space materials

This is one of those self-squaring circles. Once you have space miners, you’ll need fuel depots, which will need/buy space materials, which it can buy from miners, who it is fueling up to go back ….

Unfortunately, absent A -> B there is not B-> A.

There were some presentations at Dragon Con about this state of affairs and I think they’ll go far. It might take a few years, decades, but I think it will happen. Robotics will lead, robotic miners, water depots. Smelters, metal printers.

The real problem lies in creating a self-sufficient world in orbit. That world can have humans in it, then there will be humans there. We’ll begin to live in space sometime, I hope soon.



Future of Space Flight – Interplanetary Civilization

The final question is “Why are we doing this at all?”

  1. The Exploration Gene?
  2. Use of Resources on Earth is Limited?
  3. Protection of the Human Race?
  4. Growth.


  1. There will always be arguments of “Because it is there,” forever and ever. Humans are like that. But honestly, seeing Earth from orbit would be awesome, but the space between Earth and Mars is full up of NOTHING. Almost as bad as space between Earth and Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, the next star. 99.99999 % of space is nothing. The other 0.000001% is amazing views…which, since we can’t see them with the naked eye, might as well be seen with a camera.
  2. We can extract resources in space without digging up the Earth. Yeah, not so much. There are good reasons to dig up resources in space, but we can cleanly extract resources from Earth for thousands of years before we NEED anything from an asteroid. Especially considering the cost of delivering it to the Earth.
  3. Sure, I would feel “safer” with mankind an interstellar species…but if we can’t make it on Earth, we won’t survive long in space. Filtering Earth water is EASY compared to water rationing on a colony.

Colony: “What is our acceptable Cyanide level again, honey? I think we have a pressure leak in one of the grey water tubes. Well, don’t drink anything till I check for bubbles in the piss tank.” When THAT sentence is comparable to

Earth: “Gosh, I think we’ll need to start a billion dollar desalination plant again or our almond harvest may fail.”

So, 4. Growth.

Science is easy, but its really easy when no one is checking your answers. I can define a specific spectrum as a “Magnetostar, magnetic-spinning neutron star” and have people nod wisely, but … its just a model. Heck, almost everything in Astronomy is just a model. (Really, really good models, don’t get me wrong, this is science, but we can’t really check the answer, can we?)

Engineering isn’t like that. When we build something, you can kick the tires, or whatever it has, and determine if it is better than the previous model. But if you want something good in the future, start building in the present.

In time, humanity will move into space as a natural progress. We will find ways to survive in the big dark, we will extract resources – sunlight is the easy one – and build habitats. In time, we will have an Interplanetary Civilization. Each build is hard, each round of improvements will take decades. People will die. Habitats may fail. But, this is growth.

The development of one project for the International Space Station improved water reclamation from waste by over an order of magnitude. ECLSS.


Before, we only reclaimed less than 50% of water, now we reclaim 95%. A person used over a cubic foot of water a day, now that is down to cubic inches. Improvements will continue to be made, but they don’t happen automatically.

And those way-out science models drive some of these concepts. When we see a light curve that indicates something passing in front of a star, we get an idea of size. It blocks 20% of the sun’s light… wow, that’s big. It has weird gaps in it… it is cloud-like? It might be a meteor swarm, or it might be a habitat cloud.

Unfortunately, at over 1000 light years, it is unlikely that we’ll ever get answers of engineering questions from these aliens, if they exist. But, if the engineering is possible, we will do it and I’d prefer sooner to later.

The Future of Space Flight

The other day, on Facebook/Twitter, I reposted a snarky comment.

“It’s amusing seeing NASA try to use The Martian to build support for their Journey to Mars. Using hard sci-fi to help sell fantasy…”

Why can’t NASA launch a manned mission to anywhere?

  1. Because it is a bloated bureaucracy
  2. Because “safe” space travel is nearly impossible, and politicians don’t waste their precious vote capital on anything but sure things.
  3. Because it takes 10 years to do a mission. Presidents only last 8. It makes no political sense to make your predecessor a hero. Obama cancelled Bush’s Constellation, whoever comes next would cancel Obama’s mission priorities…if he had any.

JPL runs a tight ship, so I’ve been told. They put instruments on planets. However, deeply unsexy. They tried hard to sell New Horizon, I doubt anyone heard about the Pluto fly-by that didn’t have a space-geek in the family. The last popular mission was Mars, Spirit… landed in 2004. It has been a decade since “normal people” downloaded space images from the internet.

SO, NASA needs a road map that is unsexy and can be followed without glorifying the name of any sitting president, meaning cheap as well.

  1. Get to Low Earth Orbit, LEO


I love space planes. Get them up to MACH 9, hit the outer limits of the atmosphere, release the cargo. The cargo is traveling at escape velocity, a little bit of thrust and it docks with the ISS.

There is a bit of trouble with space planes, they need to be going about MACH 3 before the Scramjets will kick-on.


SO, we build an accelerator which gets them up to speed on the ground. (I prefer a 10 mile linear, but the ring is an easier picture.)

Do able? yes. Cheaper than rockets? considerably. Further, they fit into the skillset we currently have, not the one we wish we had. We know all about airplanes, we know very little about space travel. We’ve been working with balloons, gliders, and powered air vehicles since the 1700’s, rockets are new-fangled in comparison. We have MILLIONS of hours of air travel, considerably less in space. Work with what we know.

This is only step one, more soon.

Gleissberg Solar Minimum – Global Warming (cooling)


I was looking at Watts Up With That and saw the article. Let me clarify something – We know very little about the sun. Also, we know very little about how the sun affects the Earth.

Yes, I’m aware of sunlight, magnetic fields, etc. I’m an expert, so unless you’ve got some years in the field, don’t interrupt.

The general opinion of a few years ago was that 99.99% of the solar effects on the Earth was from sunlight. Then they allowed that maybe 1% was particles, but since there was little direct correlation between 12-year solar cycles and temperature change, it probaly wasn’t important.

Ok, so now they are coming to recognize what most people “in the field” know. The sun is complicated. Correlation between sun spots and solar activity isn’t 1 = 1. Sure, low numbers of sun spots might indicate low solar storms, but a high density and high velocity solar wind might actually mean the Earth got MORE heating during a minimum. The sun spots are only indicative of 1 type of solar weather.

So pop on over to and get a deeper view of the weather on the sun.

1) how spotty is the surface?

    not very. a few spots. The magnetogram might give a better answer, but really it is hard to tell the difference between big magnetic events and small ones. Comparing to the sunspot chart gives the same answer.

 2) How much pressure is in the solar wind?

 The solar wind runs around 2 – 5 nPa at velocities around 400 – 1000 km/s. Since you square velocity for total energy, velocity can be pretty important. Currently velocity is under 400 and density is under 1. Ok, so the wind is pretty weak right now.

3) magnetic field is usually North or South. I’ll get it backwards again, but the more North it is, the more it sticks to our magnetic field. If the wind is strong and sticky, it’ll have a bigger effect on the Earth.

4) time history is hard to judge, but if you look at the Earth’s Kp, you kind of have a time integral of what has happened the last few days. High Kp, it has been rough winds. Kp less than 4… quiet.

So, we’ve had long periods of very quiet sun, leading to a minimum that is very weak by any modern measurement. Is this an historic minimum. Heck if I know. Hard to judge what no one has measured before. But yeah, I see some resemblance to the Gleissberg cycle here. (among others.) We really won’t know till we have data, the rest is just fortune telling with expensive crystal balls.


Physics is Hard – or you don’t know what you think you know.

I got pinged on three interesting Physics Today articles this week.

1)   Focus: Electrons Not the Cause of Charged Grains
2)   Synopsis: Unexpected Impact from Medium-Sized Solar Flare
3)   Synopsis: Asymmetric Reconnections

There are actually interesting connections between these three papers, which only shows how weird my brain works.

1) We don’t actually know why rubbing a balloon on your head makes it charge up. SERIOUSLY. I’d assumed, as most people did, that it was something to do with electrons being pushed around… somehow. Ok, I gave it some serious thought some years ago when I was working lightning and found the theory lacking, but never had a good reason to push back. Raindrops do gather electricity, there are some good experiments to generate a charge.

The Kelvin Water dropper will generate a spark gap  – Wikipedia
 Drawing of a typical setup for the Kelvin Water Dropper

But water itself responds to positive and negative charge.

Seriously, the real effect in a thunderstorm isn’t a bunch of electrons jumping from raindrop to raindrop, but large electric fields generated by alignment of water molecules. So, in general, when talking about climate and 100 year models – people didn’t even have a good model for lightning.

2) Since we’re on the subject of Global Warming. The Human-Caused folks haven’t really dealt with how much influence the sun’s cycles have on the atmosphere. Major increases in ionization from even a relatively small event. I was expecting – around the auroral oval – that we’d see higher levels of heating and ionizing, but this paper seems to indicate strong charging as far south as England (I’d like better numbers here) as well as a significant influence in cloud formation. (At 20 km?) Well, I’ll take their word for it until I see their data.

Source – – gallery of images

3) What it the connection between the two papers? Electron Dynamics

The real problem with electrons is that they interact with everything, so they’re a buggar to study. One long-standing problem is assuming that they are tiny. Electrons are as large as their interaction width, which (according the the scientist at TRIUMF) he’s gotten to a mile wide in a superconductor.

This lets them do all kind of “spooky action at a distance” things, when we assume they can’t be in two places at once. They also generate magnetic fields, which influences group actions. Looking at electrons in space, we can start to see how they interact with magnetic fields, how groups of them interact with each other, etc. Seems easy enough, but it turns out we had it wrong all the time.

SO: In conclusion, Physics is hard. We learn a lot each year, but the hardest part is un-learning what we’re sure we knew last year.

Popular Science – Solar Freaking Roadways

So there has been a ton of discussion lately about Solar Roadways (I’ll ping a friend who has a blog The Non-Working Cat if you haven’t heard this Meme)- and oddly enough – the Fermi Paradox. I think I’ll link the two together, ’cause thats the kind of weird thinking you expect from me.

Lets look at Oklahoma, I used to drive there all the time. I40 kinda sucks, huge blocks of Portland cement which aren’t level anymore, cracked all over the place, the drive goes “THUMP thump THUMP thump” for 200 miles. Portland Cement is probably the only thing ever developed which may potentially last forever. It is essentially a man-made rock. Nearly identical to the locally found rocks placed by the Romans to build their roads which have lasted (though not through cars) for a thousand years.  Cement, placed in blocks of sufficient thickness, can withstand 50 years of heavy driving conditions. For its cost, best road ever.

They put in an asphalt road to my old house in Normandy, Tn. It lasted a year before it washed out. Tractors ruin the heck out of mountain roads, really hard to build a 5′ drainage substrate and support structure on the side of a mountain. Turns out that a little damage and boom, the natural environment takes it away. 50,000 bucks down the drain. Should have used cement I guess.

Solar Freaking Roadway…

Solar Freakin Roadways !

1) There isn’t a clear substance anything like cement.
2) Light absorbtion during the day isn’t enough to glow all night – Hell, buy a garden light and test it yourself.
3) Light absorbed can’t melt snow. (Hilarious to even think about. Why isn’t this on roofs? Oh, because it doesn’t work. Snow – oddly enough – is opaque and solar cells get no juice.)
4) Well, the road heating… would get people killed. They don’t heat roofs because it causes ice-sheets which can float on water (like river ice) this is really dangerous stuff to drive on, and if the roof-line breaks they slide off of houses killing people.

The list of reasons the solar road breaks physics is lengthy and silly. But who cares, really. If you want to spend your money on a glowy brick, you do that. Beats minecraft.

Here is the rub. Good ideas don’t always work. Just saying, “science will solve these problems” doesn’t make it possible. Sometimes Physics is a bitch. 

The (Enrico) Fermi Paradox can be stated as “Where is everybody?”
Basically, if you figure there is life some percentage of the time, then the sky should be full of life. Got it? They also postulate some levels of tech, where people build Dyson Spheres and finally take over their whole galaxy turning it into a private dynamo for their civilization.

So, why haven’t the Evil Robots come to take our sun, build a mirror array around it, and point it at some distant star?

‘Cause Physics is a bitch.

Here is the real answer to Fermi’s Paradox. Tech level 1 (taking the whole value of energy on your planet) may exist, Tech Level 2 (taking the whole energy of your sun) probably doesn’t exist. Tech Level 3 is magic and does not survive applications of physics.

There is no real energy-efficient way to move power over light years. We could bang on it all night, and your only real answer would be “magic” or “Black Holes” – which, given our lack of understanding of them right now, is really a scientific word for Magic.

1) 1000 light years is all we really see.
    Like an astronaut looking down at Europe, it all looks green to me. (Hit google map, knock off the drawn-in lines, run out to 50 miles to the inch… hard to spot us, ain’t it.) Of course, at night it is easier, so we’re looking for what amounts to light polution at light-years distance.

If something interesting is happening 2000 light years away, we don’t know about it. I don’t mean that we’ll see it in 2000 years, I mean that the light from those stars doesn’t get to us. The scale of stellar activity is too small. In some cases, the Light/Noise ratio might let us detect a planet, but … the local 1000 light years is a mess. That is our neighborhood and we should get used to it.

2) There is nothing – NOTHING that they could do to a galaxy that we could determine was caused by intelligent life. “Oh, they wrote the alphabet with stars.” (only a close galaxy and then I hope Spiral isn’t one of their letters.) If a Tech 3 exists Somewhere out there, (obviously not locally) it probably can’t do anything we’d know wasn’t natural.

3) The speed of light, the distance of a light year. Real Physics.

A light year is far away. Our solar system is only light minutes across. (Oort cloud… well, technicalities) We’re not talking Light days here, or even light hours.

Assume we had “perfect engine.” I put in enough fuel to move me to 99% light speed. (Whee) and travel to something interesting, say Sigma Draconis. So, 40 years later, I’m there and back. I’ve met strange new creatures and travelled new places. I’ve still spent so much energy that I could have built gold bars in a cyclotron for less.

Yes, information will then flow, but how long would it take to hit all 2500 local stars? More importantly “How much additional information comes from each star?” After a few thousand, we’d pretty much be tired of that shit and moving on to black hole basketball with cyclotron gold balls.

And out of 400 billion stars in the galaxy, we wouldn’t have hit many of them. To be on someone’s “to see” list, we have to assume Millions of advanced civilizations. millions. Using the usual calculations, there are probably thousands of advanced civilizations in this galaxy. we just ain’t neighbors.  

3) The big wrap-up

I was watching TV last night and an alien invasion used designer viruses to program humans. The amount of crazy pants here is overwhelming, but this was their best infinite replication machine. (I’ve designed better during a stomach bug.)

Physics (and Biology) are hard and don’t actually let you make an “Existential Conflict-O-Mat” Just because you want one. Just because our Sci-Fi writers believe super tech should be possible, it might not be. Probably isn’t. Heck, half the things our physicists believe today HAVE to be false, as they contradict each other. Dark Side of Higgs

4) I love Physics, but it is definitely different than magic. Engineering is hard, requires a ton of work and shows that everything breaks down: in ways you don’t expect and faster than expected. Only stars and planets appear everlasting and that just shows how little we know about them.

The Falcon 9 LANDED!

I grew up in a world where spacecraft touched down on a planet with its legs extended, ready to boost back to the heavens with its crew of intrepid heroes.  Ok, so that world wasn’t actually the real world, but science fiction. Still, it is how I think. Falcon 9 touched down on its little legs in the ocean because they were sure it would screw up and fail. Still, it didn’t. It landed. Ok, landed implicates LAND…not ocean. So, perhaps this is only a 5 on the big boyhood-rocket scale. But, the space shuttle only made a 3. Somewhere, out there, there is a design for a single -stage earth to orbit SSTO, which will work and I will grade it a 7 when I see it. SOMEDAY, Falcon 59 will touch down on the Earth, get refueled, and fly back to orbit. THAT, my friends and neighbors, would be a 10.

Interesting Reading

Sorry I haven’t posted, I’ve been a bit ill. Ok, sick. I don’t announce it for much, so it can be hard to tell, but the sinus infection has me hurting.

Spraying silver up my nose seems to work.
Sinus medication seems to help the symptoms for 2 of the 4 hours it is active.
Hot showers help… but apparently there are rules about that at work.
My vacation hours are dead (something called Christmas ruined them) but I’ll sit here at work. At least I’m not contagious.
As Garfield says “As long as I’m going to be miserable, I should share it with everyone.”

So, anyway. Here is some fun.

oh, his equations is f*ed up, but the math method is correct-ish. Figure it out and you’ll get the right answer (his answer) anyway. (but not if you follow his equation.)

We’ve been talking about solar flares, Coronal Mass ejection (CME), and Geomagnetic storms all week. I had high hopes of a real storm, but no luck. The wave of hot gas washed over us, drove Kp up to near storm levels…then died away. *sad face*

I think it is fun to think about how tiny the Earth, our sun, etc. are in the face of … say… a supernova.
SO, to start out, lets compare the Earth to the Sun.

We regularly look at CME, when the Sun belches out a bunch of protons. How many? Well, if you gathered them up, they would mass more t
han the Earth. Yeah. Just a normal burp.

The Earth really doesn’t signify compared to the sun. But hey, if it makes you feel better. The kind of sun that makes supernovas is so much bigger than our sun, than OUR sun doesn’t signify. Their radius is out past Jupiter, with some even further.

So, really, we’re just an itty-bitty planet around a smallish sun in a medium-sized galaxy.

Not to beat the point into the (relatively insignificant) ground. There are billions of galaxies out there. Some so big they literally defy math to describe them, others … well.. are little dots of ten-thousand stars like the ones about to crash into us.

Yeah, we’re what… 80,000 light years across and the nearest neighbor is Millions of light years away. We’re looking at objects 12 billion light years away… I can’t conceive of these numbers. They are unbelievable in any real sense.

So if I say I’m feeling a bit puny today. I hope I’ve shared that feeling.

Strange New Worlds …

This, my fine fellows, is an alien world. (if the picture doesn’t show up *click* on more and you can see it.)

credit to the Gemini Mission

The sun of this world, Beta Pictoris, is blocked out to keep the light from overwhelming everything else. So here we can see light reflected from a distant planet. Yep, that is a planet.

Now, that planet is huge, bigger than Jupiter, and some post-processing believes it has teased out a ring around the planet. It may have a satellite, maybe one as large as Earth. Can’t really see it well from here. None the less, this picture is real light from a real, alien, planet.

Sure, you could see the surface of Mars with a good telescope or the rings of Saturn or the colors of Jupiter. Venus is pretty much a white dot under any reasonable amplification. I’ve stared at the Moon, itself an alien world, for more hours than I could count. (It was my job one year, I’ll explain later.) But, this world is more alien still, the light of our sun does not shine here. Our sun is just one more star in a sky of countless objects – but somehow our eyes have teased the few reflected photons which have made the long journey – nearly 65 years of journey from sun to planet to us. A literally unimaginable distance, yet we have a picture.

Can we compare this to anything on this Earth?

Jupiter is 140,000 km across this planet is several times larger … so 560,000 km at a distance of 6 x10^14 km. I’ll divide by 6E6 and get 1 unit at 1e9 units.

I’d say that was like looking at a dime on the moon, but actually that job would be 25 times easier.

I’d guess the whole point of this post is pretty much a “gosh wow.” But here we are, looking into space, wondering if anyone is looking back. There is no one at Beta Pictoris. That is a new world at a new star, destined for a short, hot, life. But, we will soon be able to sight in for Earth-like worlds. Can They? Is there a race, 100 light years from here, sighting in on those rare photons from Earth – calculating the oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, surface temperature, CO2 – and wondering if there is life?

Absent a Star Trek Warp drive, we’ll never visit them, or have any meaningful communication, but here we are – like two consenting adults looking across a crowded dance floor, thinking: “What will we say first?”