Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lessons from Easter Island

When European explorers first reached the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday in the year 1722, they found impoverished islanders amid huge and impressive statues. The islanders had little memory of how the statues had been erected, and by whom. The island was completely bereft of trees, the occupants had endured decades of famine, disease and civil wars. The Dutch who landed there found a microcosm of civilization in crisis. Now many centuries later the story of what transpired there is clear; Humans reached the islands by ocean going canoes around 300 AD. At the time the island was heavily forested and had rich resources. A vibrant culture arose there, developing a system of writing and erecting the now familiar statues. A caste system arose, breaking into clans.The island population increased, the resources were greatly reduced. Clans began to war over the remaining resources, eventually all the trees were cut, and the islanders could no longer manufacture canoes. They were stranded on an island thousands of miles out in the Pacific, with little food and with no way to escape.
We are in much the same predicament now on our island, Earth. We are running out of cheap fossil fuels. Both the European Union and the United States are now in the shadow of a rare Earth minerals shortage. Globally, a diminished supply of fresh water will soon be a flash point for wars and regional disputes (in fact it already is).
In space, there are almost limitless resources in the asteroid belt and outer solar system. Just this week it was announced that the moon has more water than the Sahara desert locked up in permanently shadowed impact craters near the lunar poles. This is a tremendous discovery for the possible establishment of a permanent presence there. From water you can make oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. The moon also is rich in many of the materials for building solar panels, there is gold, titanium, and aluminum in abundance.
The question is, will we create an adequate space faring infrastructure to go out there and utilize these resources before we run out of them here on Earth? Will we fail to build our canoes before we run out of trees? Is our future out among the stars, or here on Earth where we will kill each other in increasing frequency over dwindling food and water? Next week the shuttle Discovery launches for the last time. We need to get serious about space before it is too late.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The fork in the road

The space shuttle program, after almost 30 years of operation, is nearing its end. In June of this year, Texas based United Space Alliance laid off nearly 1400 workers in preparation for the programs demise. These were for the most part, good paying jobs, adding insult to injury to an already reeling economy. The shuttle program accomplished tremendous feats, sending probes to the planets, orbiting the Hubble space telescope, launching satellites, and building the worlds first international space station. Some would say this was achieved at great cost, both monetarily, and in the lives lost of workers and astronauts who died on Challenger and Columbia. But the road to space WILL be costly in both lives and funding. Some will say its not worth it. Some will say we cannot go on without it. I am in the latter camp.
First of all, the return on money spent in the space program is an astonishing 33 percent. That is to say, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the return in technology spin offs, etc, is 33 dollars. Try to find that rate of return in any investment on Wall Street. I wont go to the trouble to list all the things we take for granted that have their roots in the space program, like computers, integrated circuits, solar panels, safer air travel, etc. Not to mention the 18000 jobs for NASA alone, and the thousands more who work for dozens of subcontractors (of which I am one). All in all, it is safe to say that our nations space program is a win win situation.
This is the point where the following statement enters the frey: We could use this money to better ends, like housing for the poor, medical research, and education. It is a valid rationale. But here is food for thought. The 2010 NASA budget is approximately 18 billion dollars. A large sum of money. But we spend 31 billion on tobacco products, 58 billion on alcohol consumption, 80 billion on illegal drugs, and 586 billion on gambling. We spend another 250 billion on treatments for the ailments I just mentioned. One could argue that 18 billion to explore our universe is a paltry sum compared to the quarters we throw into slot machines, to our own detriment. I think space exploration is a worthy thing to spend my tax dollars on.
Our Earth is getting more crowded, poorer and polluted. In the next 50 years we will start to run short on many of the rare earth minerals and metals that are driving the forge of technology of the 21st century. Yet this need not be. These materials lay in abundance on the moon and the asteroids. We need only develop a way to utilize this source and we will have almost limitless resources to drive the future of our civilization. Many already know this and are developing technologies both private and governmental to do just this. There is even talk of building a space elevator using ultra strong nano materials that will allow us to access space at a fraction of the cost of conventional rockets. All these things are literally just around the corner. Those who preach doom and gloom take note: we need not end the human experiment fighting more and more lethal wars for fewer and fewer resources. We can expand humanity into the solar system and then the stars. That dream IS achievable.

To create wonder in the minds of children, when they look at the sands of Mars from images returned from the Mars exploration rovers. To hear the myriad gasps of awe at a shuttle launch from the cape. To watch the old videos of the Apollo astronauts as they walked across the dusty surface of the moon, a sight that energized the imaginations of millions. and to expand our descendants past this little planet, into the sky. That's the future I would like to see.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The 10 best space movies

IMO Here are the best 5 space movies ever made I am picking movies that are semi realistic, shot mostly in space and with a low silliness factor (no Jar Jar)

10.FOR ALL MANKIND. 1989, Criterion video. This is the only space movie on the list FILMED in space. It is a fascinating and somewhat surreal documentary about the Apollo missions, in the astronauts own words. There is a lot of really beautiful footage, featuring a soundtrack by none other than space musician Brian Eno, no less. Its a very visual and ambient movie, highly recommended.
9. APOLLO 13. 1995, Universal. Ron Howard's movie adaptation of the ill fated Apollo 13 moon mission (did you know Apollo 13 launched on 13:13 on April 13Th?). Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and of course Tom hanks give a moving performance, as well as some ground support by Ed Harris and Gary Sinise.
8. THE RIGHT STUFF 1983 The Ladd company/Warner Bros. A memorable and moving account of the first days of the space age, beginning with Chuck Yeager's sound busting flight on the X-1 into the days of the Mercury program. A long movie but there is a lot to cover here.
7. FORBIDDEN PLANET MGM took a chance with this one, and if you haven't seen it, you MUST. Said by some to be the direct inspiration for Star Trek, the film concerns the story of an expedition to the planet Altair 4 to search for survivors of a lost expedition. Survivors they find, and a ancient secret of terrifying and unlimited power lies below the sands of this nearly deserted planet. Featuring Leslie Nelson (in a non comedic role) as the captain, and Robby the robot.
6. SILENT RUNNING Filmed in the early seventies, when ecology was all the vogue. Bruce Dern gives a moving but somewhat over the top performance as space freighter crewman Freeman Lowell, space bound ecologist tending a cargo of domes containing the last surviving ecosystems of an Earth devastated by pollution and apathy. When the command comes to destroy the domes and return to Earth, Freeman's buddies are jubilant. But he has different ideas. Highlights include shooting the rapids of Saturn's Rings, three very realistic robots named Huey Duey and Louie, and some deep thinking about the quality of life. Highly recommended.
5. ALIEN Ridley Scott's masterpiece about a bunch of space truckers who answer an alien distress beacon, with disastrous results. The only movie I have ever seen where someone actually stood up in the theater and screamed (and it was a guy). I loved the dark claustrophobic atmosphere of this movie. The space scenes are just seamless.
4. ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS A very underrated classic, concerns the crash landing and subsequent stranding on Mars of American Astronaut Christopher "Kit" Draper, lone survivor of a two man orbital foray to the red planet. He deals with loneliness, no oxygen, no food no water and whips all these problems. He is joined on Mars with runaway slave "Friday" (played by Victor Lundin, Star Treks FIRST klingon). I don't know where to start with this movie. The movie is somewhat dated, but the idea to film in Death Valley was just brilliant. and there is even a semi pink sky (we didn't know Mars had a pink sky until 1976). Its just an amazing film.
3.VOYAGE TO A PREHISTORIC PLANET American International Pictures, 1965. Originally a Russian film, concerns the exploration of the planet Venus, not the scorching hot sulfuric acid Venus, a milder somewhat prehistoric Venus with some amazingly humanoid Venusian swimsuit models here and there. This movie actually has a lot going for it, there are some pretty cheesy scenes inter spaced, but also some intriguing ones. One of my faves is when the robot tries to save one of the astronauts by administering a pill. Pretty amazing considering the state of robotics in the 1960s. Worth a watch.
2. CONQUEST OF SPACE Paramount Pictures, 1955. This is a gem, concerning a mission to Mars. The movie is based on the book of the same name. Chelsey Bonstell and Willey Ley had released a non fiction work about spaceflight and this is a gorgeous film adaptation, with some dramatic license of course taken. Lots of eye candy including a space station, Mars rocket plane and of course meteors, the bane of 50s sci fi.
1. 2001; A SPACE ODYSSEY Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1968. For so many reasons, the best space movie of all time. Concerning the discovery of an alien artifact on the Moon and the subsequent mission to Jupiter to investigate a mysterious signal sent there. The cinematography is beautiful, with fantastic special effects (f0r 1968, way ahead of its time) The spaceship models are just unforgettable, and remember this is before CGI was even a thought in anyone's minds.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The edge of the universe

How many times have you looked up at the sky and thought; "where does it end?" Well according to astronomers, the visible universe can be seen to a distance of about 13 billion light years. The visible universe meaning the matter in the universe that is detectable through its radiant energy, be it light or radio waves. Nothing is seen beyond this point because as you are looking deeper into space you are looking farther back in time; current theories about the formation of the universe give the date of the Big Bang, or the moment of creation of all we know, at about 13 billion years ago. So as you are looking farther and farther out, you reach a point where the light of the object you are looking at started its journey shortly after the big bang. Its a strange and eerie effect, and in essence the entire sky is a sort of time machine. But I wondered, what would you find if you were able to go out to the last galaxy, on the edge of the expansion, and fly out past it? Suppose it was totally empty?
One strange thing occurred to me immediately. If you went farther and farther out, until that last galaxy you past was for whatever reason no longer detectable, you would lose all points of reference, so it would be difficult if not impossible to prove you were moving, or to calculate which direction you were moving in. You would be completely lost. The concept of the space around you having dimensions would be greatly diminished. Which made me think, does matter somehow create the space around it? If you can no longer detect motion or direction, is the space around you for all intents and purposes now nonexistent? If you are in a universe with say just two objects in it, you can always measure distance and velocity between the two objects. But what if you are in a spacecraft that has flown so far out into the cosmos that no other objects are longer visible? You might still have velocity, but since you are not moving towards anything and cannot detect anything to be moving away from, you may be from one frame of reference motionless. So for this reason, I theorize that the "edge of the universe" is the self imposed limit of detection of physical matter. once you reach that point, where you cannot detect any physical object except your space craft, you may have reached a sort of edge. I will ponder this idea later...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

From the singularity to now

I spent the last week in a rained in beach condo wanting to snorkel. What amazed me is that this particular week, there was heavy rain in South Florida, which just happened to be the week of my vacation. Then today, a day after I got home, the weather started improving. I know the two are unrelated, or are they? Some theorists have put forward that every event in the universe is related to every other event. This dates all the way back to the time when the universe was a singularity, to the point of the rapid expansion from that singularity to the universe of billions of galaxies and trillions of stars. As all elementary particles once shared a space many times smaller than the head of a pin, they interacted, and the after effects of their interactions have lingered even when they traveled through the eons and many light years of space. As a result, events separated by immense distances could be connected. In effect, the behavior of every particle in the universe may have been influenced by every other particle. So a lightning bolt on a planet 20,000 light years away could be somehow connected to the Kentucky derby. Do the interactions of particles billions of years ago now result in my vacation being rained out? Maybe. Just something to ponder.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I am back!

Sorry about the time off, I had some family matters to take care of. Its good to be back and I look forward to hopefully writing some stuff that you may find interesting.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The great Canadian fireball of 2008

At approximately 5:31 PM local time last Thursday, residents of Edmonton Alberta got a bit of a fright. The skies lit up over much of central Canada as a large fireball streaked across the heavens, flaring and fragmenting, seemingly striking somewhere over the horizon. It startled a number of residents and was inadvertently caught on surveillance cameras at several locations (a google search will reveal a number of these). While it hasn't been definitively identified, it was NOT: A. the lost tool bag from the international space station, or B. a crashing UFO. It was most likely a nickel iron or stony meteorite ranging in size from an orange to a small desk which broke up as it entered the atmosphere The breakup resulted from the overpressure which results from the force exerted on the meteor by air pushed ahead of it that can no longer get out of its way due to its great speed (around 17 kilometers per second) It was an amazing albeit somewhat rare event, which scientists term a bollide, and count yourself lucky if you ever get to see one (a small one at least) I witnessed one in my lifetime, on new years 1973, over central Florida, around 1:30 AM. It was bright, beautiful, and scary, it lit the sky up with pink, white and green light.
The Canadian event when witnessed on video is stunning, and one wonders if this is the effect of a small meteor what would the effect of a larger one, one large enough to strike the surface with considerable force be? I decided to do just that, using the University of Arizona's asteroid impact effects calculator, available online at The object I modelled for my hypothetical hit was a really nasty one, an iron asteroid approximately 2 miles in diameter, coming in at around the typical speed of 17 kilometers per second, and at at a rather steep 45 degree angle and striking the Edmonton metropolitan area.
The results of such an impact are not suprisedly, total destruction.
A fireball of superheated gas and vaporized rock with a diameter of 8 miles would be created, lingering for approximately 16 minutes, and incinerating anyone or anything unlucky enough to be in its general vicinity. when the fireball dissipated,the excavated crater with a diameter of around 40 miles would become visible, completely obliterating Edmonton.
Then I wondered what the effects would be some distance away, Say, Seattle Washington, around 500 miles away from the impact. Again, even at some distance, the level of destruction is almost surreal. Around 3 minutes after the impact in Canada, the people of Seattle would experience a magnitude 9.4 earthquake, the seismic shock wave caused by the impact ( the fault induced great San Fransisco Earthquake of 1906 was estimated at 7.8) causing severe structural damage all buildings . Around 8 minutes after the impact, material ejected by the formation of the crater would start to rain from the sky, most probably semi molten fragments of rock and dust , which would start numerous fires. As the before mentioned earthquake would probably destroy most plumbing,and thus water pipes, the fires would be difficult if not impossible to extinguish. 45 minutes after the impact, the air blast would hit, with a hurricane level wind velocity of around 200 mph, blowing down 90 percent of the trees, shattering windows and knocking down whatever buildings left standing. The sound of the impact from 500 miles away would be around 93 decibels . Loss of life would be great. It would be the most catastrophic event in human history. And this level of destruction would extend out in all directions for thousands of miles, as the seismic wave and ejecta propagate out from the impact point.
How likely is this to happen? A 2 mile asteroid striking our planet is fortunately a very rare event, happening on the order of tens of millions of years.But it has occurred throughout the history of our planet and will continue to do so The number of people worldwide searching for these objects is the same as the crew of one McDonald's restaurant, and the amount of money allocated for searching is minuscule. But it is a threat, and if it does happen, the only hope we would have of averting it is to get as much warning time as possible, if the asteroid is detected early enough, we might have decades to react, and there that could be developed that could theoretically deflect an asteroid from its path (blowing it up would only turn it from one impact into multiple ones) Hopefully we will see more money thrown at detection in the future. And hopefully we will get more warning time then the Canadians did on Thursday.