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Discussions on global warming and manned space flight, Sahara solar power July 9, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Climate Change, Technology, The Future.
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Two interesting discussions to point out today.
First, RealClimate has a brief article about the G8 countries agreeing to try to avoid anything more than two degrees of global warming. The comments vary from hopeful to sceptical and all the way out to cynical.
Second, space scientist Wes Huntress posted an article on The Space Review giving advice about the future of manned space exploration. It’s well worth a read, and the discussion in the comments section is enlightening.
The debate surrounding the future of manned spaceflight is an tricky one, especially as robotic technology gets cheaper and more powerful (see this awesome photo). I would love to see humans land on Mars in my lifetime, but I have a hard time coming up with rational arguments for sending them. Personally, I think we should be looking at the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (specifically Europa, Titan and Enceladus) for signs of life. These would be robotic missions, and I would hate to see them postponed in favour of human missions.
Is human space exploration only considered because of its public appeal, or its space-cowboy, Apollo-era sense of adventure? Is there anything wrong with that? I’d like to see your arguments for human spaceflight if you’ve got any.

There could be some good news coming for supporters of solar power: an article at the Economist says a meeting will take place on July 13 to drum up support for enormous solar power stations to be built in the Sahara. The meeting will be hosted by Munich Re, which has invited 20 other big companies including Siemens and Deutsche Bank.
It would be a hugely expensive project, but would aim to supply %15 of Europe’s power in 2050 as well as most of North Africa’s.

I hadn’t thought about power as a potential export from Africa before. Could generating and exporting power boost the economies of developing nations?

Finally, check out this story about blind people learning to “see” with echolocation! I had no idea!

National Ignition Facility. And, a waterwheel. May 5, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, Uncategorized, What?.
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It’s been a long time, I know, but I’m back now and I hope to post regularly from here on. I just finished three weeks of work experience at two local papers, and followed that with a week-long, live-newspaper exercise for my course.

Things are back to “normal” now though, and except for looming deadlines (which are also “normal”) I have nothing in the pipeline except achieving 100 words-per-minute of shorthand and waiting for the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009 in London.
Also, my parents are popping by for a weekend in June.

Now that we’ve caught up, here’s the skinny:

First off, the BBC website has this article about a Sheffield group looking for investors to help set up a water wheel which could power “about 40 homes.” 40 homes?! That’s like one street!

The article quotes Rob Pilling, chairman for Sheffield Community Renewables, as saying: “Small schemes like this are nice because they generate lots of energy and people in the community can relate to them.”

Well, that’s nice. Wait a second…you received a government grant of GBP50,000 to help Sheffield become a low-carbon city and you’re using it to “deliver renewable energy schemes in Sheffield by giving local people the opportunity to make an ethical investment in these projects?” So, you’re using GBP50,000 of taxpayer money to encourage taxpayers to invest more of their money in schemes like water-wheels? What’s going on here? What’s this article even about? Give it a read and let me know.

Second, energy on a wholly different scale: The National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California is the first fusion lab that is actually expected to achieve fusion ignition, meaning more energy will be produced than consumed. Is nobody else as excited about this as I am? This changes everything!

192 lasers will hit a target the size of an air-rifle BB with a total of 1.8 million joules of ultraviolet energy, or 500 terawatts in two billionths of a second. This is about 500 times the peak power output of the US. That’s a lot of energy.

Check this article out for a great photo tour of the place. The comments are great too.

The NIF is my new favourite machine, even if countless computer games have warned against doing things like this. Will it open a portal to another dimension or turn someone accidentally trapped inside the chamber into a god? Even the hoped-for results are mind-blowing.

Someone should tell Walter Wagner about this. He’s the guy that filed the lawsuit against starting up the LHC for fear of it creating a black hole, and he gets torn to shreds (metaphorically) in this hilarious Daily Show video. Thanks to Bad Astronomy for catching it.

Classified Atlantis mission nearly ends in disaster, hopes shattered for Alcubierre “warp drive” April 5, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cybernetics, Nasa, Space, The Future.
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www.spaceflightnow.com tells a dramatic story of when NASA almost lost space shuttle Atlantis on a “blacked out” mission to bring a top-secret spy satellite to orbit. So, a piece of insulating foam fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and took huge chunks out of the ceramic tiles that make up the shuttle’s black underbelly. These tiles protect the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. Remember Columbia? This was before that.

So the astronauts on board took a look at the underside (with the Canadarm maybe?) once they’d reached orbit and saw the catastrophic damage. However, because of the secret nature of the mission, they could only send back low-resolution video. People on the ground couldn’t make out the broken tiles, and ordered them to continue and land as normal…read the story. It’s really good. I found it via Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine.

In other news, an article on www.technologyreview.com shattered the hopes of hard-core space-travel fans everywhere by claiming that the Alcubierre warp drive might not work after all.
Although there has been no evidence whatsoever that matter can travel faster than light, the physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a means of travel where the space in front of a ship is compressed while the space behind it is stretched. The ship wouldn’t be travelling faster than the speed of light compared to “local” space (ie “flat” space within the “warped” bubble), it could go from one point to another faster than the time it would take light to travel in a line through “flat” space.

One of the interesting side effects would be that people on the ship wouldn’t feel the acceleration because the ship wouldn’t actually be moving in the conventional sense. Also, the clocks on the ship would run at the same speed as the clocks on an observer’s wall. Normally something travelling at (or near) the speed of light would experience time dilation, in which a traveller might experience one year of time while the observer would experience five, etc. etc.

One question that I haven’t seen answered though (maybe because the explanation would be way over my liberal-arts head) is this: Even if space could be compressed and stretched like this, wouldn’t the ship eventually have to travel the distance through “flat” space one way or another? Wouldn’t the ship just end up back at its starting point when the space around it snapped back to its “flat” state? To actually land on (or even communicate with) a planet the ship (or its broadcasts) would have to cross the space between it and the planet, no matter how compressed or twisted that space would be. Follow me?

Regardless, the article says it would actually be impossible for a number of reasons. Too bad…although supposedly creating a bubble of warped space around a spaceship would take as much power as would be produced if all of Jupiter was converted to energy. That’s a little beyond our meagre fossil-fuel methods these days.

There’s a story on the National Geographic website about a robot controlled only by the power of human thought. Pretty neat, but I ask you this: Aren’t all machines controlled by human thought? I guess this demonstration just cuts out the middle man.

According to the North Korean media, they have successfully put a satellite in orbit, which is now transmitting revolutionary songs. Other countries are sceptical, and the claim has not been independently confirmed. Some think it was a cover for a long-range missile test. Read about it here.

Whoops! Scratch that. Satellite failure. Two stages of the rocket and its payload crashed into the Pacific Ocean (BBC used the term “landed,” which I think might be a little generous). Thanks for breaking the news, Twitter!

Finally, take a look at some of these great space photos! There’s a beautiful one of the ISS as seen from shuttle Discovery‘s window.

Surprise meteor, Hubble service mission update and China’s lunar probe March 2, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Woah! What the hell was that? A totally unexpected asteroid sped by on Monday between the Earth and the Moon. It’s travelling at twenty kilometres per second and is between 60 and 100 metres wide. Apparently that’s nothing new, and a lot of asteroids zip by unnoticed. I find that a little unnerving.
The difference between an asteroid and a comet (like the comet Lulin that passed by last week) is in their appearance. Comets have a visible tail (or coma) and asteroids do not. A comet’s tail is water vapour and dust particles that have blown off the body of the comet as it gets close to the sun.
A meteoroid is smaller than an asteroid (and according to the official definition, bigger than an atom). It becomes a meteor when it enters a planet’s atmosphere and becomes visible as a bright streak. Any material from a meteor that makes it to the ground becomes a meteorite.

In other news it looks like the upcoming service mission to the Hubble space telescope will get the go-ahead after all. After the recent satellite collision there had to be some weighing of the risks. If the mission succeeds it would make the Hubble much more powerful and extend its life considerably.

Finally, China’s Chang 1 lunar satellite concluded its mission of mapping the surface of the moon by slamming into the moon in a “controlled collision.” Although it only became the third country to send a person into space recently, it looks like China is pursuing its space program ambitiously, with plans for a space station and manned lunar mission in the works as well.

Now you see it… February 22, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There are still some things that humans can do better than computers. According to Vernor Vinge of San Diego State University, we should enjoy it while it lasts. I dug up this very interesting if somewhat bleak paper about technological singularity, and I recommend you give it a read.

Anyway, about what we do better. If you’ve got some time on your hands and feel like helping out, go on over to the Galaxy Zoo and classify some galaxies. Humans are still way better than computers at processing images according to their content, which is why search engines can only sort images based on tags (ie strings of characters) attached to them. Wait, maybe not.

So, after The Sloan Digital Sky Survey photographed a quarter million galaxies, it needs your help to classify them all. Galaxy Zoo will show you a picture of a galaxy and ask you some basic questions about it. Most of the pics are blurry smudges but some of them are startlingly beautiful.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more social, head down to gwap.com. Gwap stands for Games With A Purpose, and the idea is that by playing these (addictive) games you’re helping search engines clarify their results by classifying music and identifying the contents of images. I don’t know if I subscribe to their emphatic statement that “By playing our games, you’re training computers to solve problems for humans all over the world,” but the games are fun and you get to feel like you’re working when you’re actually playing.

While we’re on the topic of helpful websites, if you haven’t checked out FreeRice, you should.