Going for Gold at Pluto

See the source image

New Horizons‘ lead scientist Alan Stern describes their “Gold Standard” plan to return to Pluto:

First, after an orbital tour of Pluto, a final pair of close gravity-assist flybys of Charon will free the orbiter from the Pluto system to explore the Kuiper Belt without any need for any propulsion from the orbiter. Next, using only the existing capabilities of the NASA Dawn mission electric propulsion system, the craft will conduct a flyby tour of up to a half-dozen small Kuiper Belt objects and any one of a number of dwarf planets. In fact, in some scenarios, the Dawn propulsion system can even place the Pluto orbiter around a second dwarf planet for another orbital mission.

Lots more on the particulars of the design trades that have to be made for an orbital vs. flyby mission in the article at Astronomy.com. One of the balancing acts that always intrigued me is the need to cover the distance quickly but still arrive with enough propellant to slow it into orbit when it gets there.

An earlier piece at Astronomy lays out just why we ought to be interested in this icy world at the end of the Solar System:

Pluto generates enough heat to comfortably sustain a subsurface ocean over billions of years. The evidence scientists have accumulated so far suggests such an ocean is present — although it most likely remains locked beneath a thick, rigid shell — and would be detectable by a future orbiter. Also keep in mind that Pluto is not unique: Other bodies in the Kuiper Belt have similar sizes and most likely also possess oceans. So, the outermost reaches of our solar system are not universally hostile. Despite the cold and the dark, Pluto and its brethren may represent welcoming oases.

This is fascinating to me, and was part of my premise for Frozen Orbit. When it became apparent it held organic compounds known as “tholins” similar to what we’ve found on Saturn’s moon Titan, I naturally wondered about what else might be hiding out there in the Kuiper Belt. If comets were the source of Earth’s water and organic materials, most of which came from the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, then that kind of makes the whole belt into one big freezer pantry. That made for some intriguing story ideas about how we came here and our place in the universe.

The rest you’ll just have to read about when Frozen Orbit comes out in January. If you really don’t want to wait, Baen is selling advance reader copies now.


Nothing to See Here

I’d hoped this New York Times story on warp drive research contained was actual news, but it’s just a rehash of stuff I linked to last fall so apparently there’s been no actual progress. That’s what happens when you let the NYT get your hopes up:

Dr. White likened his experiments to the early stages of the Manhattan Project, which were aimed at creating a very small nuclear reaction merely as proof that it could be done.

They tried to go through and demonstrate a nuclear reactor and generate half a watt,” he said. “That’s not something you’re going to market. Nobody’s going to buy that. It’s just making sure they understood the physics and science.”

While I think this is way cool and exactly the sort of ragged-edge R&D that NASA should pursue vigorously, my enthusiasm is curbed by the thudding crash of lumbering reality. In particular, this stuck out like a sore thumb:

For NASA, Dr. White’s warp speed experiments represent a rounding error in its budget, with about $50,000 spent on equipment in an agency that spends nearly $18 billion annually. The agency is far more focused on more achievable projects — building the next generation Orion series spacecraft, working on the International Space Station and preparing for a planned future mission to capture an asteroid.

Emphasis mine.

What, exactly, has NASA “achieved” in terms of new vehicle development since barely dragging the Shuttle across the finish line thirty-odd years ago? It’s an easy answer: think of a whole number that falls between 1 and -1. Null. Nil. ZERO. And the amount of money they’ve spent on all those cancelled projects? Well, it’s something approaching the exact opposite of zero.

So yeah, this would all sound a lot more impressive if I had more confidence in the guvmint’s ability to see any high-tech project through to completion, much less on time. Or on budget. Of course, they’re real good at stuff like tapping our cell phones or reading our e-mails (“Yes, Verizon? I’m interested in your ‘share EVERYTHING’ plan…). But when it comes to next-level tech projects that don’t involve violating their constitutional limits? Yeah, not so much.

Having sold the fusion facility in its current incarnation as a device for testing the reliability of nuclear weapons, the lab’s leaders now are back to selling it as an energy machine. The lab’s director told CBS’s “60 Minutes” earlier this year that NIF’s aim is to generate “clean, limitless power.” He said that would free the United States of greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on Mideast oil, and that commercialization of the technology could begin in ten years.

Good grief. Sounds like they’re setting up a plot device for the next Marvel Avengers movie. Come to think of it, NIF wasn’t a total waste since it made for a really cool set in the new Star Trek movie. So there’s that.

National Ignition Facility: it may have accomplished more as a Star Trek set.

It’s all fun and games until someone has to climb inside the warp core.

Warped Minds

NASA’s latest project under construction. You wish.

Maybe Elon Musk isn’t thinking big enough?

A few months ago, physicist Harold White stunned the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a faster-than-light warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein’s law of relativity.

I’ve heard about this kind of research off-and-on for some time, and have to admit I thought it was nuts. But if it’s actually within reach of current technology (namely, enough energy to power such a thing) then, yeah. That’s the sort of out-there R&D that NASA ought to be working on, because new technology pretty much always starts with a lab experiment:

What White is waiting for is existence of proof — what he’s calling a “Chicago Pile” moment — a reference to a great practical example.

“In late 1942, humanity activated the first nuclear reactor in Chicago generating a whopping half Watt — not enough to power a light bulb,” he said. “However, just under one year later, we activated a ~4MW reactor which is enough to power a small town. Existence proof is important.”

Once the underlying science is understood, it becomes an engineering problem. And that’s where the really cool stuff gets done.

11/29 UPDATE: Warp Drive goes all respectable-like in the Atlantic Monthly.

Weird Science

Quantum physics is not something I claim to even remotely understand, not that it stops me from trying. One aspect that I do get, however, is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It stipulates that we can never know how subatomic particles actually behave, because the very act of observing them affects their behavior.

This makes sense to me at a gut level – I mean, don’t you act differently if you know someone’s paying attention? Not that I’m implying that protons and such have emotions…but the instruments used to observe things so tiny have to exert some kind of electromagnetic force themselves (I think), or force the particles into a medium where their traces can be seen.

And that, dear readers, is pretty much the extent of my understanding of particle physics. So it was interesting to find this story: namely, that the uncertainty principle isn’t so – well, certain:

The principle has bedeviled quantum physicists for nearly a century, until recently, when researchers at the University of Toronto demonstrated the ability to directly measure the disturbance and confirm that Heisenberg was too pessimistic.

In order to overcome this hurdle, Rozema and his colleagues employed a technique known as weak measurement wherein the action of a measuring device is weak enough to have an imperceptible impact on what is being measured. Before each photon was sent to the measurement apparatus, the researchers measured it weakly and then measured it again afterwards, comparing the results. They found that the disturbance induced by the measurement is less than Heisenberg’s precision-disturbance relation would require.

The headline at the link pretty much writes itself: Scientists Cast Doubt On Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

So how do they know?



Need for Speed

If you follow aeronautics, this is a significant development. Plus the pictures are really cool.

Economics aside, noise is the single biggest impediment to building a new supersonic airliner. The reason you never saw Concorde zipping across our skies is that nobody wants sonic booms trailing across their country on a regular basis (especially Boeing, since they didn’t have their own SST ready at the time). And yeah, that’s a lot of windows to replace in any case. But if these guys have really been able to shrink the noise footprint and solve the pressure drag problems, then we could see a lot more progress on the SST front. But even given this breakthrough, I suspect that it makes a lot more sense as a small business jet than a higher-capacity airliner.

The next biggest impediment is air traffic management: really fast bizjets like the Citation X (.92 Mach, almost sonic) still have to downshift into the same arrival traffic as pokey old 737s. For really busy areas (think NY or SoCal), this tends to happen a lot farther away from the destination than most people realize – several hundred miles in some cases. It’d be like driving an Indy racer full-blast down the interstate, then having to merge into the off ramp to sit in traffic behind a minivan for the last hour of your trip. Ick.

Regardless, I guarantee you there will be plenty of bizjet owners clamoring for one of these if they ever make it into production. I’ll need sell a lot more of these to pick up one of my own, though.

Why I’m Such a Space Geek

Wicked cool stuff like this, for starters:

The upper reaches of the atmosphere are still not as well understood as the rest underneath. That’s because while it may technically be “space”, there’s still too many trace molecules to orbit any satellites up there, and sounding rockets can only peek at it for a few minutes at a time. As civilian suborbital flights become more routine, expect us to find out a lot more about the fringes of our atmosphere.

And though what’s “out there” is fascinating, I’ve always been much more interested in the big noisy machines we use to get there. Which is also why I dabble in high-power rocketry (I say “dabble” because we only get out to launch maybe once or twice a year). Here’s my own version of the Black Brant X sounding rocket seen in the photo above:

At about 1/3 scale, it’s a little over 5 feet tall. This was launched in southern Ohio, near the WV border. The sound of that motor echoing off the foothills made it all the more impressive. This is a small rocket compared to some of the stuff I’ve seen at club launches.

One Good Thing About Bankrupting the EU

There won’t be much money left to fund crazy stuff like this:

A group of scientists is pushing to publish research about how they created a man-made flu virus that could potentially wipe out civilisation.

The deadly virus is a genetically tweaked version of the H5N1 bird flu strain, but is far more infectious and could pass easily between millions of people at a time.

The research has caused a storm of controversy and divided scientists, with some saying it should never have been carried out.

I would have to agree with that last sentiment. There’s been far too much fooling around of late with things that I’ll officially call Really Bad Ideas. Like the Dr. Moreau-ish human-animal hybrids, and to a lesser extent, the dinosaur reverse-evolved from a chicken.
Now I’m a big fan of scientific advancement and its subsequent benefits to modern life. You know, really important things like life-saving drugs, HDTVs, PCs, iPods…
But is there really any good reason to be intentionally monkeying with things that could lead to a great deal of ugliness if only one or two people got careless? To my mind, this isn’t like the CDC keeping live samples of smallpox or polio because those are viruses that already existed in nature. It’s probably not smart to think they’ve been completely eradicated. Certainly, nobody’s turned them into civilization-killing superbugs yet.
No doubt there are more scientifically astute people than I who can explain the rationale for this, but it’s hard to see what that might be. Where does a society draw the line on morality or common good when we don’t share a common moral framework?
Kind of like the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody ever does anything.

These Two Neutrinos Walk Into a Bar…

The estimable Charles Krauthammer explains that light-speed thingy much better than I ever could. At National Review Online:

Einstein’s predictions about how time slows and mass increases as one approaches the speed of light have been verified by a mountain of experimental evidence. As velocity increases, mass approaches infinity and time slows to zero, making it progressively and, ultimately, infinitely difficult to achieve light speed. Which is why nothing does. And nothing ever has.

Until two weeks ago Thursday.

That’s when the results were announced. To oversimplify grossly: If the Gran Sasso scientists had a plate to record the arrival of the neutrinos and a super-powerful telescope to peer (through the Alps!) directly into the lab in Geneva from which they were being fired, the Gran Sasso guys would have “heard” the neutrinos clanging against the plate before they observed the Geneva guys squeeze the trigger on the neutrino gun.

Sixty nanoseconds before, to be precise. Wrap your mind around that one.

It’s as if someone told you that yesterday at drive time Topeka was released from Earth’s gravity. These things don’t happen. Natural laws don’t just expire between shifts at McDonald’s.

They certainly don’t at any McDonald’s I’ve ever been to. By all means, read the whole thing. And hold on to your hat.

UPDATE: An opposing view from someone with a bit more direct experience in such matters.

UPDATE THE SECOND: It’s an error, which can be accounted for by special relativity according to MIT. Supposedly they’re pretty good at this physics stuff…

But Would it Make a Good Omelet?

Scientists attempting to hack chicken DNA to “reverse-evolve” a dinosaur from an embryo.

From the story at Wired:

Hints of long-extinct creatures, echoes of evolution past, occasionally emerge in real life—they’re called atavisms, rare cases of individuals born with characteristic features of their evolutionary antecedents. Whales are sometimes born with appendages reminiscent of hind limbs. Human babies sometimes enter the world with fur, extra nipples, or, very rarely, a true tail. Horner’s plan, in essence, is to start off by creating experimental atavisms in the lab. Activate enough ancestral characteristics in a single chicken, he reasons, and you’ll end up with something close enough to the ancestor to be a ‘saurus’…Already, researchers have found tantalizing clues that at least some ancient dinosaur characteristics can be reactivated.

Fascinating. Or something.

E ≠ MC²

Holy hyperdrive, Batman: Faster-Than-Light Particles Question Einstein’s Theory

One would hope the CERN researchers have thoroughly vetted their results and analyzed them eight ways from Sunday before making it public. Gizmodo also reports on this while not sounding entirely convinced at the same time. The comments probably add more to this debate than I could, in any event. Interestingly, blogger/scientist L.Riofrio has been advocating a light-is-slowing-down theory for some time so one must wonder how this figures into it.

A few years ago, I went back to school to learn all the Calculus that I should’ve studied as an undergrad. But that’s what happens when an English major Forrest-Gumps his way into an Engineering job.

Boy, what a difference 20 years made. What once would’ve sent me screaming into the night was now fascinating. I drank it in. Anyone not majoring in one of the hard sciences or an engineering discipline should at least take Calc 1 and 2. And take it with an open mind, not as some medieval torture that you must endure.

Why? Carl Sagan once said something along these lines: “We have constructed a society that is almost entirely dependent on science and technology, yet have structured our education system so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a recipe for disaster.” While I had serious disagreements with much of his social thinking and general disparagement of religion, this is absolutely correct.

Because Calculus is nature’s Rosetta Stone. It’s the universal language of science and engineering. It’s the method we use to describe and predict the world around us. It’s how we quantify things that are dynamic, constantly changing. Once I began to understand it, the power of Calculus blew my mind. And I developed a much greater appreciation for Sir Isaac Newton. Building upon the work of others (because that’s how it goes), he pretty much invented Calculus in his early twenties while on an extended break from college (“University”, in the Queen’s English). They were closed for an outbreak of Tuberculosis or some other devastating 17th century disease.

And he did it without slide rules or a whiz-bang TI84 Silver Edition calculator.

I also developed a much greater appreciation for God. And let me tell you, it can be a struggle to remain grounded in your Faith while pursuing Science at the same time. The latter frequently challenges our notions of the former. It shouldn’t. Unfortunately, too many with scientific education use that as a convenient excuse for Atheism.

In my case, learning Calc was different. To a much greater degree than Trig or Algebra, it gives us tools to understand nature from the smallest subatomic particle to the farthest galaxy. From modeling the behavior of viruses to figuring out how to measure blood pressure.

More importantly, it’s a tool we can use to mathematically predict things which is the key to scientific discovery. It took centuries for man to figure out the language of nature. God’s rules of the road. And we’re still refining it, four hundred years after Newton first figured it out for himself. But God snaps His fingers, and it just is. Left there hanging, taunting us to try and catch up.

One example: our class once dug into E=MC² as an exercise. It didn’t take long to see that as values of E (energy) got closer to C (speed of light), the value of M (mass) started heading for infinity. Which mass can’t do, despite what my bathroom scale has been telling me for the past several years.

And that’s my layman’s view of why this could really shake up physics. If CERN is correct, it is a Very Big Deal that shows how much we still have to learn.

God is Infinite. Men are puny.