Random Ravings of a
Retired Rocket Scientist
Essays on science, engineering and medicine. A rocket scientist reflects on the world around us. A great read for young adults of all ages.
Click any cover to read an excerpt and buy the book.
September 19, 2018
Asteroids are antiques. They're the leftovers from the formation of the solar system—unchanged throughout time. Want to know how it all started? We could send a chemist to analyze one. The trip would take years. A robot chemist would be better. Robot chemists don't ask for a ride home. A robot miner would be better still. It could scoop up samples and carry them back to Earth labs. The Japanese probe Hayabusa did just that.
Hayabusa rendezvoused with a nearby asteroid named Itokawa, surveyed it, and returned a thousand microscopic samples to Earth. Exhaustive tests and analyses revealed details beyond the miracles performed on television's CSI show. The asteroid was born 4.6 billion years ago—about the same time as everything else in our solar system. It was involved in an collision 1one or two billion years ago, and recently migrated from the asteroid belt.
The Japanese Space Agency followed this success up with Hayabusa2 which reached a bigger asteroid Ryugu this summer. It will land there and collect more specimens for return to Earth laboratories in 2020. The USA probe Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is closing in on yet another near-Earth asteroid, Bennu. It will return its specimens in 2023. These missions will teach us a lot about near-Earth asteroids. Extension to bodies in the Asteroid Belt beyond Mars is not on anyone's drawing board yet.
September 12, 2018
Reports of coral's death have been greatly exaggerated. Ocean warming and ocean pollution have bleached coral reefs around the world, but bleaching isn't necessarily death. Coral is an animal that builds a limestone burrow around itself. Generations build on the remains of their ancestors, and huge colonies become the familiar coral reefs.
Animals have to eat, so coral nurture algae. These brightly colored zooxanthellae algae capture energy from the sun and photosynthesize the nutrients that feed their coral hosts. Zooxanthellae are sensitive plants that leave when the local temperature, chemistry, or lighting are not just right. Their departure leaves naked coral trapped in their white limestone caves. Hunger and then starvation ensue. The strongest survive awaiting the return of the algae.
Coral have endured ocean climate variations over hundreds of millions of years. Recovery of the world's largest coral reef has already begun. An estimated thirty percent of Australia's Great Barrier Reef suffered bleaching in the 2016-2017 summer heat. The Reef & Rainforest Research Centre reports the reef shows "substantial signs of recovery" after a milder 2017-2018 summer.
September 5, 2018
Today's simple climate models cannot explain "the year without a summer." Eruption of Indonesia's super-volcano Mount Tambora on April 10, 1815 led to heavy rains worldwide. 1816—the year without a summer—followed. Crops failed. Farms were abandoned. Famine drove migration to warmer regions. Eruption of the nearby volcano Krakatoa on August 27, 1883 did not alter global climate. The two events seemed similar. Both shattered 2.5 cubic miles of mountain—a hundred million billion tons of rock—and spewed the debris into the atmosphere from about the same location. The difference in their climatic effects was profound. Recent analyses have finally suggested an explanation for the disparity between the two.
The explosive force of an eruption shatters the volcano's rock cone. Shards as big as Buicks and shards smaller than a spec of dust are hurled out in a stream of super heated gas. The plume rises and spreads until it hits an inversion layer in the atmosphere above. What we see of the volcanic cloud is trapped there. It spreads out through the stratosphere.
Volcanic plumes are electrically charged. The explosive shearing of the volcanic structure happens faster than electricity can relax. Positive gases are ejected carrying negatively charged particles with them. Violent lightning storms accompany the plumes. Charge is neutralized via discharge and collision, but is far from complete during plume rise.
Recent calculations by Mathew Genge (Geology, 21 August 2018) show the inversion layer may not corral the smallest particles in the plume. The attraction of the ionosphere's positive charge balances gravity and aerodynamic drag on the smallest fragments. Charged shards of a few hundred thousand atoms are electrically levitated into the ionosphere. That's where clouds form. A temporary excess of nucleation sites makes more clouds, and those make more rain. As the negatively-charged fragments spread out, they neutralize the region's natural positively-charged ions. Genge calculates that a mere five hundred tons of injected debris would be enough to short circuit the upper atmosphere. That would have profound effects on the weather until the sun's ultraviolet radiation restored normal conditions. It might be enough to cause a "year without a summer."
August 29, 2018
Krakatoa erupted 135 years ago this week. On August 27, 1883, the Indonesian volcano rumbled to a crescendo with the force of ten thousand atom bombs. The explosion tore the island apart and blew 2.5 cubic miles of debris into the atmosphere--about a hundred billion tons of dust. Its cloud spread around the globe and colored sunsets for years after. It did not affect the weather.
Years before, the eruption of Indonesian Mount Tambora on April 10, 1815, had produced the "year without a summer." That explosion was an estimated ten times more energetic than Krakatoa. It shattered the mountain and lofted a comparable amount of dust and debris into the atmosphere. Mount Tambora's clouds blocked enough sunlight to drop temperatures around the globe. Summer snows were symptomatic. Crops failed across the northern hemisphere. Farms failed. Famine was widespread.
What was the difference? Why were Mount Tambora's effects so much different from Krakatoa's? Climate models should contain the answers. Years ago—when I reviewed early climate models for the Defense Department—I challenged the modelers to account for these different effects. We have worldwide weather data for both events.
Today, climate model predictions have gone from a new ice age to global warming, and now to the noncommittal climate change. None have been able to meet the test and differentiate between the effects of Mount Tambora and Krakatoa.
Why should we mortgage our future based on models that can't explain the past?
August 22, 2018
The sky is full of surprises. The harder we look, the more wonders we see. This week, astronomers announced the discovery of a strange object out there. Too big to be a planet and too small to be a star, it is on the borderline between the two. It glows as hot as an electric range. It shouldn't. Not big enough to ignite nuclear fusion, its heat source is unknown. Intense radio emissions indicate a strong magnetic field and bright aurorae. Those arise from magnetic fields accelerating charged particles into the poles. Where those particles come from is a mystery—one of many.
This object is a rouge planet twenty light-years away: a lone body accompanied by nothing. Rogues are hard to detect, but they're probably not uncommon. They're the debris from thirteen billon years of cosmic collisions. When stars pass within a light-year or so of each other, their orbiting debris clouds are jostled. Outlying objects are most affected. Planetary orbits are torqued. Far-flung swarms of asteroids and proto-planets are siphoned off or kicked out. Ejected bodies become rogues roaming the universe. Most cool to the ambient temperature of interstellar space—near absolute zero. A few larger rogues may have internal heat sources that keep their interiors above ambient. The high temperature of the newest rogue planet is abnormal. Is it a nuclear reaction we don't understand? Most become invisible against the background of space until they get
The recent encounter with the rogue asteroid Oumaumau may be typical. The giant rock appeared out of nowhere headed toward the sun. We watched it accelerate through the plane of the planets, turn, and fly back into oblivion. Oumaumau is probably representative of the cold dark wreckage filling interstellar space. There's thirteen billion years worth of it out there.
August 15, 2018
Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) has escaped the hospitals and set healthcare back a hundred years. MRSA makes a twenty-first-century infection about as dangerous as its nineteenth-century predecessors. Before penicillin, Staphylococcus Aureus (staph) caused incurable infections ranging from itchy to fatal. Along came penicillin and staph became a nonproblem. One dose killed 99% of the staph germs, and the infection went away. Only the strongest 1% of the bacteria survived. Those went on to infect again, only to be almost wiped out once more. Soon, the surviving staph germs became immune to the effects of penicillin—the drug had killed off the rest. Other antibiotics worked for a while, but resistance to those evolved too. Through the hundred thousand germ generations since penicillin, staph has developed immunity to all known antibiotics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls MRSA infection the most serious cause of infectious disease in the United States. They report tens of thousands of human fatalities every year. Nobody is counting nonhuman deaths, but the San Diego Zoo lost a baby elephant to MRSA a few years ago.
Those bacteria are everywhere. We come in contact with them every day. Our skin protects us from them—as long as it remains intact. A break in the skin invites staph in. Open sores turn into stubborn infections. Those require months-long medical care or surgery. Staph bacteria that reach the bloodstream attack internal organs with frequently fatal results. Medical and dental professionals exercise extreme care to prevent infection in invasive procedures. Others may not be so conscientious. Tattoo parlors and piercing emporiums look nothing like operating rooms. Intravenous drug users are notoriously unsanitary, and MRSA infection of their heart valves kills twenty thousand of them every year. (That's comparable to their sixty thousand annual overdose death rate.)
There's no cure for MRSA infections. The search for new antibiotics goes on—with the hope of a respite from the staph epidemic. A University of Iowa study has identified a staph secretion that may be responsible for some of its most devastating effects. Staph attacks the circulatory system, especially the valves and linings of the heart. Until we can cure MRSA infection, we can try to block its most severe effects. The Iowa study results may point the way.
August 8, 2018
Robots are the future. Competitions like those organized by RoboNation are bringing the future to us today. Last week, they held their twenty-first annual RoboSub competition for autonomous underwater vehicles. Forty-seven student engineer teams from ten countries created robot submarines to perform tasks simulating actual underwater work for Navy and industrial applications. They sought objects, retrieved objects from the bottom, deposited them to a target location, and more. All without human intervention.
Innovation was everywhere at the event. Student engineers explored ways for their robots to figure out where they were, and to decide which challenges to attempt. There's more than one way to snatch something moving around in the turbulence of your own thrusters. Everything from a claw to a simple stick was used to flip a switch. The teams were proud of their inventions. Engineering crosstalk means next year's student robots will be even more sophisticated.
Everyone came away a winner. Building a robot submarine this complex is an accomplishment to be proud of. The teams who made it to Sunday's final round were some of the world's leading schools. They were
California Institute of Technology
École de Technologie Supérieure from Canada
Far Eastern Federal University from Vladivostok, Russia
Harbin Engineering University from China
Maritime State University from Vladivostok, Russia
National University of Singapore
San Diego Robotics 101
Sunday's podcast of the final round of competition was viewed by academics, alumni, and engineering hiring managers world-wide. We were not disappointed.
The judges named Harbin Engineering University the winner for 2018. They and the forty-six other teams can be proud of what they did this year. They'll spend the coming year upgrading their designs and come back better than ever in 2019.
August 1, 2018
Again this week, the news media announced there's water on Mars. Radar data suggested there's a lake a mile below the planet's south pole. Ground penetrating radar saw reflection off a smooth surface there. An underground lake would look like that.
The reports assume that this is a lake filled with liquid water like the ones under Earth's own south pole. The radar data neither support nor refute the asumption that the lake is filed with liquid water. Radar can't identify materials. Deep down beneath the Mars south pole, it's cold, so water would have to be really salty to remain liquid there. Briny water is what is being reported.
Mars's lakes needn't be water lakes. There's evidence that liquids once flowed on the surface of Mars. What that liquid was is not clear. Mars has never been in the Goldilocks zone for liquid water. That's where it's neither too hot nor too cold. Like her poridge, the temperature must be just right for liquid water. Mars's lakes could be methane lakes, like those of Jupiter's moon Titan. Mars has been in the Goldilocks zone for liquid methane. The surface of Mars may have been more like Jupiter's moon Titan than like Earth. Residues of methane lakes could lie buried under the Martian surface. At the temperature and pressure under a mile of Martian rock, methane is liquid with or without dissolved contaminants. The Martian water in this week's news may turn out to be liquefied natural gas.
July 25, 2018
Jupiter's Technicolor moon Io is a land of fire and brimstone. That moon—just a bit bigger than our own moon—has over 400 volcanoes. About 150 of them are active at any given time. All that lava spreads out and repaves the planet surface, so Io has few or the visible impact craters that other moons do. The volcanoes spew giant plumes plus lava, molten iron and sulfur. Sulfur and its compounds come in vivid colors. The element itself may be red or yellow. Its oxides come in several different colors. One familiar iron sulfide is "fool's gold." Vast surface deposits of these minerals give Io its brilliant colors.
Io is hell. It is nestled deep inside Jupiter's radiation belt. Humans and their probes can't survive long in that environment. Only the most advanced telescopes can image Io. It has been photographed from afar by deep space missions picking up a gravity boost on their way past Jupiter. It's just a target of opportunity when the Juno probe swoops in for close ups of Jupiter.
The data to date show hell is an exotic place. The gravity of Jupiter and two nearby moons create phenomenal tides there. Hundred foot tall waves propagate through the solid crust of this moon. (Solids do flow under enough pressure. Chocolate bars sag on a summer afternoon. Window glass droops over centuries.) The friction of these tides heats the interior to melting. The core is liquid—possibly liquid iron like Earth's center. Gravity's pulling and tearing stresses the solid surface. When it fractures, some fragments are subducted into the liquid core. Others are twisted in Himalayan-scale mountain ranges. Studying Io's extreme geology will help us better understand our own planet.
July 18. 2018
Apollo 11 landed on the moon forty-nine years ago Friday, July 20. Everyone who has ever received a letter from AARP remembers where he or she was that day. We were all biting our nails as we watched the moonscape flash past the Lunar Module window. Boulders and debris: the terrain looked rough. Could they land there? The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Eagle landed. (Years later, we learned the descent engine was running on fumes. The mission was only seconds from abort.)
Then the world waited while the astronauts did a few housekeeping chores and ate lunch. They scrubbed the four-hour nap NASA had scheduled for them, suited up, and stepped out to the moon. An outside camera showed Neil Armstrong step cautiously down the ladder. Finally, he took "one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." Would the moon be sand or quicksand or bedrock? It supported his weight. He grabbed a contingency sample just in case, and stepped away.
Man's first visit to the moon would be brief. It was the victory lap in the Space Race with the Russians. The two astronauts planted the American flag, and received congratulations from President Nixon. They collected rocks and soil samples, and fielded science experiments—some of which are still functional today. After less than a day, they blasted off for home.
Their ride back orbited overhead. Space vehicles had docked in Earth orbit before, but never in lunar orbit. National nail biting continued until the two ships locked together. The astronauts and their samples were moved to the Command Module for the trip home. They jettisoned the Lunar Module. All that was left was one engine burn. It would take them out of lunar orbit and put them on the homebound trajectory. That burn would occur on the far side of the moon. The ship popped out from behind the moon on course, and the world breathed easier, Earth orbit was guaranteed.
The drama was over. Descent from orbit was old hat, so the public wasn't concerned. Landing in the Pacific Ocean went almost flawlessly. The astronauts were recovered, wrapped in bio containment suits and quarantined for two weeks. The Apollo 11 craft was bleached to kill any alien plagues that might have hitched a ride to Earth. All went well with parades and honors. A few longer moon missions followed—and then the world forgot Apollo.
Humans are going back after a fifty-year hiatus. Robots and probes from a half dozen nations are paving the way. SpaceX has sold two tickets for a tourist loop around the moon. NASA will put Americans back on the moon within five years. They may meet astronauts from China and other countries when they get there, GoogleMoon has mapped every nook and cranny of the place. FedEx is planning deliveries as soon as there's someone there to sign for a package.
July 11, 2018
Can man follow his robots to Mars? The mission is dangerous and tedious. Weightlessness causes loss of muscle tone. Six months of it can be crippling. Astronauts often return from the International Space Station in wheelchairs. The Mars team must step off their lander unaided after eight months of zero gravity. The beginnings of radiation sickness will compound the effects of atrophied muscles. Still, they'll be happy to escape from eight boring months inside a Greyhound bus size space vehicle. Mission simulations indicate that crowded conditions there will create high levels of stress. Research is seeking ways to reduce the physical and mental challenges of the voyage.
Getting to Mars is only the beginning. Human subjects have been exposed to conditions simulating the full Mars mission. The trip is eight boring months in a tiny vehicle getting there, then eight months camped in a desolate Martian desert, and finally back onto the bus for the dreary eight-month ride home. Radiation exposure continues to accumulate until the return to Earth. The effect of Mars's reduced gravity is unknown. Will the effects of weightlessness be reversed or will they only slow under it? Will bone mass loss compound muscle mass loss? Mission simulations show the psychological issues continue to grow as time moves on. Watch jealousies and personalities explode in Stranded on Mars.
The astronaut is the one mission component that cannot be reengineered. Hardware development for the rest of the expedition continues on the ground and in near-Earth orbit. It must be tested in space before launch to the red planet. The moon offers the ideal test bed for that. Both the moon and the planet have low gravity and no atmosphere to speak of. Both are bathed in intense radiation and suffer frequent meteor strikes. The two have limited natural resources and little water. A moon base would be almost local test site by comparison—a quarter million miles vs. a quarter billion.
Robots will prefabricate the Mars colony before astronauts arrive. The prototype construction robots should be debugged on the moon first. Build a model city there, and then an engineering test lab. When the robots' work is done, staff the outpost with human test engineers, and send them the Mars mission equipment to investigate.
This would be the dream "overseas assignment" for an aerospace engineer. They'd feel right at home there. FedEx is already planning to provide service to the moon base.
July 4, 2018
The ocean has a climate all its own. The sun drives both the atmospheric and oceanic climates. Solar heating is concentrated near the planet's midsection—between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Hot water floats on top of cold. Winds push the warm water toward the poles. The rotation of the earth twists ocean flows into great arcs—clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere. These warm streams dominate the climates of the sea and the land around it.
Just as air streams like the familiar Jet Stream spin off the swirling local disturbances we call weather, the ocean's main streams spin off eddies of their own. Cold-water whirls rise from the depths, and warm water swirls descend into them. These are analogous to the low- and high-pressure centers seen on weather maps. Both kinds of ocean eddies span hundreds to thousand of miles and persist for months.
Creatures of the sea have evolved to live in them. Rising whirlpools carry nutrients up from the bottom. Cold water dissolves more oxygen and carbon dioxide than warm water can. Photo plankton and the food chain based on plankton thrive in the cold-water flows. Life is different in the warm-water vortexes. Carbon dioxide shortage limits photosynthesis and thus the rest of the food chain. Despite that and a general oxygen deficiency, alpha predators stalk the depths of warm water whirlpools. There must be plenty of prey there. A three thousand pound fish does not exist on sardines alone.
Great white sharks migrate to warmth. Six years of tracking two adult great white sharks finds they frequent warm areas near shore and in the open ocean. Food is more abundant in colder waters, but these sharks and other predators show a strong preference for warmer areas. Shark experts suggest this may be the result of the shark's need to maintain its body temperature. Great white sharks are warm-blooded animals. In the open ocean, they dive a quarter mile down to hunt, and can stay longer where they don't lose heat as fast.
Two thirds of the earth's surface remains unexplored. Our oceans are more alien than the moon or Mars. It's a fascinating place. There may be primitive life all over the solar system, but our oceans contain the only other intelligent life for light years around. Meet another Earthling in Fish Story.
June 27, 2018
An asteroid—bigger than an SUV—exploded in the sky south of Moscow last week. The superheated rock erupted in a brilliant flash and trailed smoke and debris for miles. That was a relatively minor event. Five years before, an asteroid as big as a couple of diesel locomotives shattered a Russian city. The largest asteroid impact in recent history flattened an area in Siberia larger than Los Angeles, London, or Moscow. Long ago, a mountain-size asteroid may have triggered the dinosaur die off.
The sky has been falling since before the Earth cooled. As our parent interstellar cloud collapsed to form our sun, wisps of leftovers condensed into bits and pieces around it. Those began to coalesce into planets, moons and more. The planet-building process continues to this day. Asteroids and comets swarm the universe, flying hither and yon until they hit something—anything. They may shatter or scatter or fuse. Meteors hit the Earth every day. The next big one may hit tomorrow, or it may hit in a hundred thousand years. We don't know.
Scientists are searching the sky for potential asteroid hazards. Nearly twenty thousand have been cataloged so far. NASA posts warnings when a large one will pass closer than the moon. Things swinging around the sun and coming back at us are harder to predict. Extra-solar objects like Oumuamua are beyond the state of the art. No apocalypse-scale asteroid collisions are on the horizon … yet.
What could we do if we saw the big one coming? Whatever it was would take years to prepare—longer if the government procurement cycle was required, longer still if an international effort were mounted. That much time wouldn't be available. Predicting the intruder's trajectory years ahead of time would be too uncertain to justify the expense entailed. Whatever response was selected, it would not be a manned expedition—that's Hollywood. Robots work better and they don't expect a ride home. A few nuclear detonations properly placed might alter the trajectory enough to buy a near miss. Smithereens are out of the question. Intersecting alien intruders at interplanetary standoff distances is the stuff of video games. So are lasers delivering enough energy to deflect a heavyweight asteroid. The only technically feasible response to an apocalypse asteroid is to evacuate the target area.
June 20, 2018
It's ugly out there today…on Mars. A dust storm has enveloped a quarter of the planet. Martian storms are natural disasters so huge they're visible from orbit. Satellites have watched storms lie these grow as big as Texas and even planet-wide in scale. Severe Weather like this is a hazard encountered by every Martian explorer in contemporary science fiction. My latest novel Stranded on Mars is no exception. Zero visibility may be hazardous to your health.
The facts of the planet's climate are not yet understood. What causes these storms? Martian summer is beginning. Dry ice frost is subliming—passing directly from solid to vapor. (There is no liquid carbon dioxide on Mars.) How do winds of such a wimpy atmosphere raise enough haze to block the sun and create zero visibility? Could it be like the Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930's? There, extreme drought dried the soil so much that it no longer clumped together. Winds lofted unbound grains of soil. Mars is far drier than Oklahoma at its worst.
Martian weather forecasting is a long way off. Satellites will track current dust storms as they develop. Further details may be available from Opportunity the robot rover trapped in the middle of the current storm…if it survives. The robot is solar powered, but it's pitch dark inside the storm clouds. NASA has put it into hibernation in hopes of preserving enough battery power that it can awaken after the storm passes. We don't know how long it will have to sleep or whether its batteries will freeze solid in the interim. It's not known how much damage blowing Martian debris may inflict on it. Martian dust is not like than Earth dust. Martian sand grains are electrically charged and have sharp edges. Opportunity may be struck by lightning during the storm. Tiny specks hitting seventy mile per hour chunks may sandblast its optics. Its joints may be filled with grit, and its solar cells covered with crude. (Here or there: dirty solar panels don't work well.) If Opportunity recovers, it will be our "boots on the ground" reporter. We'll be one step closer to protecting future astronauts and colonists from Martian Mother Nature.
June 13, 2018
Suicide is a sad fad. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a steady rise in suicide deaths over the past twenty years. This reflects either a disturbing fashion trend or relaxed reluctance in reporting. Has suicide's stigma worn off?
This week, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two minor celebrities killed themselves. They both made the front page for the first and last time. Few people had heard of either one before, and only their families will remember them after next week. Nevertheless, watch for copycat suicides by people wanting their own fifteen minutes of fame—just like the stars. Suicide rates jumped 10% in the months following reports of Robin Williams' suicide.
Suicide happens too often. Suicide deaths outnumber traffic fatalities or opioid overdose deaths. Three quarters of American gun deaths are suicides. Women tend to choose poison instead. Others hang themselves, slash their wrists, or jump off high places. Stepping in front of fast-moving trains is the latest fad in my neighborhood. That gets you only local news coverage around here. For real notoriety, point a gun at a cop. Your death sparks demonstrations about "wrongful death" and "police brutality." Do those wrong-way freeway drivers really cause traffic accidents? Or are those incidents murder/suicides?
Just because Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahassee Bridge doesn't mean you should too. We're losing twenty-two veterans every day—responsible young men and women with a lot more to contribute to our country. Suicide is the wrong answer. Lonely? Depressed? Know someone who feels that way? Friends and professional help may keep some from hurting themselves and their loved ones. The suicide hotline 1-800-273-8255 is the first step away from harm.
June 6, 2018
Telescopes and computers are beginning to unveil a universe stranger than science fiction. Once upon a time, the moon and a handful of planets orbited our flat Earth. Heretics who suggested otherwise were burned at the stake. Not so long ago, there were nine planets—including Pluto—and a gaggle of moons. Then came the first planet beyond our solar system; the first ten; the first hundred. There are thousands known already, and the number keeps growing.
Today, computers do the repetitive work to explore the sky. The tedium of finding Pluto was heroic. Computers don't get bored. They can stare at reams of data looking for the subtlest variations. The first extra-solar planets were discovered by a tail-wags-the-dog effect on a star's spectra. (A star wobbles as its planet spin around it. The stagger in its step tells us it has planets.) More have been detected by a star's slight dimming when a planet crosses between the star and us. NASA's Kepler probe watched a small swatch of sky and found thousands of planets close by. Its successor TESS will survey a much wider expanse. It should find many more. There are an estimated ten billion planets in our Milky Way Galaxy alone, and a hundred billion billion more planets throughout the cosmos.
Tomorrow's telescopes will tell us even more about the worlds out there. The Webb telescope will discover planets beyond those we've seen so far. The next generation telescopes may able to image and study the planets around nearby stars. Don't expect maps like GoogleMoon or GoogleMars just yet. Do look for answers to fundamental questions.
Š Which ones have moons.
Š Which planets or moons have liquid water?
Š Which have atmospheres? Water vapor can be detected in the infrared; nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide can't. Radiation or electric storms may generate auroras. Active volcanoes may spew detectable materials into the planet's atmosphere.
Š Which planets or moons are candidates for extraterrestrial life? Liquid water and comfortable temperatures suggest a possibility of life as we know it.
Actually detecting life there, intelligent or not, is beyond the realm of foreseeable technology. We'll have to join the Search for ExtraTerestrial Intelligence (SETI) in waiting for them to contact us with a big neon sign saying HI MOM.
May 30, 2018
Mars: getting there is the easy part. NASA is landing heavier and heavier robots on the surface. SpaceX is soft landing and reusing the massive first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on Earth. If they can land something that heavy here, they'll be able to do the same thing on Mars soon. SpaceX is already pitching tickets to Mars colonists. Those Mars tickets are one-way tickets though. SpaceX doesn't offer a ride home. The way back is an engineering, economic, and medical nightmare all its own.
A manned round trip to Mars weighs more than we can loft. Such a trip would have to be launched in stages. All hardware components for the return trip would be preplaced before the astronauts even left Earth. That equipment would have to work perfectly after enduring years of extreme cold and intense radiation. Stranded on Mars describes the consequences of failure. (Remember, there was no Plan B for the Apollo astronauts.)
The first step home would be launch into orbit. Lifting a crew off the planet requires something like a Cape Canaveral launch…without the thousand NASA support engineers back home. They're a twenty-minute communication delay away. The Mars evacuees are on their own.
Mars is smaller than Earth. Its gravity is lower, but launch still requires massive amounts of propellants. The launch rocket itself would be fabricated on Earth, delivered to Mars, and landed there. NASA hopes to avoid the additional cost of shipping tons of propellants by manufacturing them on site.
Propellants store energy to move the rocket. Solar energy is the only known energy available on Mars. Sunlight there is only half what it is on Earth. Mars has limited natural resources to make propellants from. The atmosphere is carbon dioxide. There are unknown amounts of methane and water on the planet. An autonomous chemical plant could synthesize and store oxygen and methane or ethane for the launch. The visiting astronauts will want to know the tank is full before leaving home.
Engineering can fix every element of the Mars mission except one. Astronauts are not easily modified to accommodate radiation or weightlessness. Radiation monitors accompanying Mars robot expeditions show that a single round trip exceeds the recommended lifetime human exposure to radiation. Astronaut muscles atrophy under weightless conditions. Six months of it can be crippling. No one can predict the effect of eight months getting there, a year of one-third gravity on the ground, plus eight months coming back. Robots don't complain about little things like that, and they don't demand a ride home. It's not time to send a man to do a robot's job…yet.
May 23, 2018
We search for intelligent life light-years away, but overlook our own oceans. Intelligence has sprung up all over the world. We'll find it everywhere if we just look with open minds. It's not just our ape cousins or our household pets either. Exotic species like squid and octopus seem to be as smart as our dogs and cats. Humans need to be able to deal with the range of intelligent Earthlings before encountering the even greater variety expected in extraterrestrial intelligence.
Octopus and squid are nothing like people. Their intelligence is as alien as their physique. Legends of their problem solving abound. Octopuses poach from adjacent tanks in captivity and escape secure lab facilities. Squid hunt in packs. That kind of coordination requires communication. Humboldt squid change color quickly. When hunting, they flash red and white so fast they seem to be telegraphing each other. Other colors for other circumstances suggest a larger vocabulary in a language of colors. That would be a viable alternative to humans' spoken word for an intelligent animal.
Our intelligent neighbors live in a world unlike our own. Humboldt squid spend their days lingering at oxygen-depleted depths—probably feeding on whatever they find there. At night, they rise to the surface to hunt. Swarms of squid attack schools of fish. Bite-size ones are consumed on the spot. Larger prey may be dragged back down to the oxygen minimum zone to suffocate. Fellow squid may be injured in the violence, and are often eaten along with the quarry. Anything wandering into squid feeding frenzies is attacked. YouTube videos show man-size squid mobbing human divers who got too close.
Extraterrestrials have two arms, two legs and one head in the movies. Expect greater variety in reality. Present day intelligent Earthlings are just a small sampling of what we may eventually encounter in the universe. Even those don't always fit the humanoid mold. Squid intelligence may continue to evolve here on Earth, and may already have gone far beyond on other planets. The science fiction novel Dead Astronauts describes squid-like aliens from an ocean-covered planet. When we encounter intelligent extraterrestrials, they won't be "as seen on television."
May 16, 2018
San Diego will put the FAST in fast food. Uber will explore food delivery by drone here. It's part of a Department of Transportation test of commercial drones. Uber is also testing driverless cars on San Diego streets, and plans to introduce flying taxis in five years. The city has been selected as one of several test beds for commercial drones.
There's more to commercial drones than just Thirty minutes or it's free. San Diego organizations will explore applications to improve the health and safety of the area. UCSD Health will be part of a team looking at drones rushing medical test specimens to laboratories. Sister cities will look at delivering blood, drugs or defibrillators where they're needed. GE and the City of San Diego will develop applications to upgrade infrastructure management. Their drones may even seek out open parking places—a potential quality of life benefit. A critical element of the Department of Transportation study will be avoiding drone interference with civilian and military aviation in the greater San Diego area.
In three years time, the Federal Aviation Administration can look forward to a blueprint for regulating commercial drone traffic in cities everywhere. San Diegans can look forward to warmer delivery pizza, faster turnaround at clinics, and maybe a parking place. Legitimate businesses can look forward to catching up with the Mexican cartels, which have been flying narcotics across the border for years.
Applications to public safety will not be overlooked. Law enforcement agencies are developing surveillance drones to supplement manned aerial platforms. AT&T will develop remote observers to help focus emergency response. Qualcomm, AT&T, and GE will look at monitoring incursions crossing the border with Mexico … or flying over it
In three years time, the engineering will be largely done, and the legal hassles just begun.
May 9, 2018
Insight, a robot geologist is on its way to Mars. It will sleep through the six-month journey and wake up ready to explore. Orbiting satellites have mapped the planet. Insight's robot predecessors have roamed the surface. This one will burrow into the ground beneath it. There, it will field instruments up to sixteen feet deep to monitor the flow of heat from the interior of Mars. A companion motion sensor will detect Marsquakes and other rumbles. Mars is bombarded by meteorites. Their explosive impacts send seismic waves through the ground. Those signals and their echoes will paint a picture of the interior structure of Mars.
Understanding the planet Mars begins with its geology. That's why the commander and chief scientist of the first manned mission to Mars—in my novel—is a geologist. A human could respond to the unexpected a robot might not detect. The first human geologist won't go into suspended animation for the six-month journey—like Insight. He'll need to be kept alive and protected from interplanetary radiation the whole way. He won't chance an experimental landing technique like the one Insight will use. He'll need a lot more than just a few square meters of solar panels to survive and function. Last, but not least, he'll demand a ride home. That's something Insight isn't getting. That's the failure that leaves the crew of my Mars 1 expedition Stranded on Mars
The more we learn about our sister planets—their similarities and their differences—the better we can understand our own. The rocky planets of the inner solar system were all formed out of the same swirling debris cloud four billion years ago. Mercury turned out small, Venus hot, and Mars cold. Earth turned out just right. Earth has a strong magnetic field, the others don't. Earth has plenty of oil and water, Mars has less. Venus and Earth have volcanoes; Mars seems quiet. Why? The list goes on and on. We have a lot to learn from our neighbors.
May 2. 2018
If the drug doesn't kill you, the needle might. Opioid overdoses alone killed more than sixty thousand Americans in 2016—the most recent year tabulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's more than auto accidents, suicides or murders. Users surviving the overdose epidemic may die from dirty needles. Shared needles are spreading Hepatitis, AIDS and other infectious diseases through the user community.
The New York Times reports a growing problem of serious heart effects among those who inject illicit drugs. Germs introduced into the blood stream along with the drugs spread disease throughout the body. Massive levels of antibiotics combat the resulting systemic infections. Survivors carry the scars of bacterial incursion. These effects may include critical damage to the interior linings and the valves of the heart. This lethal condition, called endocarditis, requires open-heart surgery.
Endocarditis is rare in the rest of the community. The underlying infection may arise from invasive medical or dental procedures, but also from tattoos or body piercings. Some 41% of endocarditis patients survive treatment unless they are illicit drug users. Addicts return to the needles that infected them in the first place. Many suffer a second bout with the condition, and some have gone around a third time. Only 7% of the drug user patients survive ten years after their first operation. Frustrated surgeons performing these procedures are starting to demand their patients undergo drug rehab as part of their therapy.
April 25, 2018
It's raining planets. Five hundred years ago, heretics were burned at the stake for suggesting stars might have planets. A hundred years ago, most people believed there must be planets out there somewhere. Thirty years ago, the first exo-planet was detected. After that, astronomers found them by the dozen, and then by the hundred. Five years ago, NASA launched Kepler and the sky's population exploded. Kepler stared at a narrow sliver of the sky and found thousands. TESS, its successor, will scan a larger area. Tens of thousands more exo-planets are expected.
Like Kepler, TESS will search for planets blocking some light from their suns. When one crosses our line of sight, some of the starlight is obstructed. How much depends on how big the planet is; how long depends on how it orbits its star. From the size of the host, astronomers infer how big the planet is, how heavy, how hot, and more.
TESS will search for additional nearby exo-planets. Nearby is a relative term. To an astronomer, nearby is not somewhere you could travel to. Proxima B, the closet known exo-planet, is 4.2 light-years away. That's a hundred thousand year trip for the fastest man-made object yet. (My Dead Astronauts novel describes the arrival of Proximeans who traveled at one hundred times that fast. It was still a journey of a thousand years.) Visits to other nearby exo-planets will take a human lifetime at the speed of light—when we figure out how to do that. Light moves that fast; people don't.
No one has seen an actual exo-planet yet. It is hoped that the next generation of space telescope—or the one after that—will accomplish that feat. TESS results will highlight some worth trying for.
What will TESS see? What would it see if it were out there looking back at us? The mission will monitor the southern sky the first year and then the northern sky the second. If it were orbiting some exo-planet, it would watch our sun for a year. Mercury would dim the sun four times and Venus once or twice during that period. Earth would cross once. Mars would be fifty-fifty and the rest would be unlikely. They'd want to go back for a second look to be confident about the inner planets of our solar system.
If they continued studying us, what more could they see? After a while they'd notice our size varied by five percent between sightings, and decide we had a large moon. Meticulous spectroscopy would see a half percent or less effect indicating water in our atmosphere. (Oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide are invisible.) That would suggest that life might be possible here. That would probably justify pointing their best space telescope in our direction. They'd see a blotchy blue-green ball. They'd interpret the blue as liquid water. They'd wonder what the green patches were.
April 18, 2018
Sarin: what's sarin? It's a lethal chemical recently used against Syrian civilians. Sarin is just one of several organophosphate compounds developed as war gases by German chemists in the 1930s. After World War II, stockpiles of German nerve agents GA through GF were discovered. None had been used in combat. Following the War, the US implemented a chemical arsenal around sarin (GB) and the USSR built one based on tabun (GD). Both stockpiles have since been destroyed.
There are a number of nerve agents known. They are modern chemical warfare agents lethal in microscopic doses. All enter the body through the lungs, or even through the skin. A couple of high profile assassination attempts have delivered nerve poisons by contact. A nerve agent spray broadcasts death over a wide area.
Once inside the body, nerve agents spread out and attack critical nerve junctions. Nerve cells pass messages along long thin tendrils called axons. One nerve cell or neuron communicates its message to the next by excreting a wisp of a chemical at their juncture. Each link contains an enzyme that captures that chemical and turns the signal off. Humans have billions of neurons controlling every function of our body. Different functions employ different signal chemicals. The autonomous nervous system that operates our heart, our lungs, and our gut signals with a chemical called acetylcholine. Normally, the enzyme acetylcholinesterase removes that chemical and switches the signal off. Nerve agents destroy that enzyme and short-circuit the body's control systems. Death or disability is quick and ugly.
Sarin is cheap and easy to make and use. That's why it's so dangerous. Simple recipes can be found in libraries and online. The ingredients are all available over the counter cheap. Crude sprayers are all that are needed to poison a target area. Primitive countries and even a few small terrorist groups have developed and used sarin.
April 11, 2018
The sky is falling.
On April 2, 2018, nearly ten tons of debris fell out of orbit and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese space station, Tiangong-1, was an orbiting engineering test bed. Unmanned docking practice was followed by two manned missions. The experiments validated Chinese docking technology in preparation for more ambitious space missions. The old lab was left in orbit pending a controlled crash into an unpopulated area. Communication with the ground was lost before that could be completed. Tiangong-1 was left blundering uncontrolled through the sky.
Wisps of atmosphere extend all the way to Tiangong-1's near-Earth orbit altitude. Even that little bit of air exerts drag on satellites speeding through it. Tiangong-1 lugged its clunky shape—solar panels and all—through that thin air at over fifteen thousand miles an hour, so the drag slowed Tiangong-1 down. As it did, Tiangong-1 lost altitude and dropped into thicker air. That increased the drag, and the Chinese space station slowed even more.
By April 2, Tiangong-1 had dropped into air so thick it could no longer hold together. The solar panels tore off and the main body plummeted. Searing heat and impact shock shattered the falling body. Pieces scattered over the ocean. No damage was reported on the ground and no effort to recover the pieces was mounted.
Tiangong-1 was just the latest in a long line of heavy objects dropping out of the sky and crashing to the ground. Mir and Skylab, obsolete satellites and expended rocket stages have been falling since the start of the space age. The flock of debris in space today will rain space junk down on Earth for millennia to come. We're adding to that population every day.
As space assets grow heavier, their debris footprints will grow larger. Decommissioning things like our International Space Station should be planned—not just left to fa;; from the sky.
April 4, 2018
It's great white shark pupping season along the southern California coast. The mothers have been pregnant for a year. Now they're headed for warm shallow waters to deliver their pups. Each mother conceives dozens of embryos, but the young ate each other long ago. The strongest in each of every mother's two uteruses survive. Mom is having twins.
The twins will be born hungry. The four- or five-foot young will hunt the local fishery and grow, but first they'll have to outswim Mom. She's hungry too, and anything is fair game—her young or ours.
Mom's favorite food is seal. Humans swim like sick seals. If Mom thinks she's happened on an easy meal, she just might take a bite. Yech! She'll probably spit it out in disgust, but a single shark bite can be fatal. Be careful where you swim. Don't feed the great whites.
Dolphins look tasty too, and dolphins can't seek shelter on shore. They find safety in numbers. Sharks fear dolphins hunting in packs. Dolphins gang up to kill sharks that threaten them. The last time we had a great white attack a human around San Diego County, the news carried drone footage of a dolphin posse hunting the beast. Shark sightings along our local beaches ended that day.
Swim with the dolphins, not with the sharks.
March 28, 2018
The solar system was in a hit-and-run accident. A rogue star system sideswiped the solar system and careened off at a quarter million miles per hour. The sun revolved around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy at a half million miles an hour. She dragged her solar system—a light-year wide disc of debris—along with her. Seventy thousand years ago, a wandering binary star system grazed the outer edge of that disc. Objects orbiting out there in the Oort Cloud were deflected by the gravity of the passing stars. Some pieces were kicked out of the solar system; others were nudged inward. Those became comets. Those still emanate mostly from the region where the impact occurred.
The rogue star system fled the scene. Today, that system—the recently discovered Scholz's Star—is twenty light years away. The effect of the collision on that distant rogue is unknown. It may have picked up some of the ejecta from the Oort Cloud. It may have injected some of its own orbiting bits and pieces into the orbiting cloud or spewed them into interstellar space.
Impacts like this one are probably regular occurrences. Near misses of a light year or less are believed to happen about once in a hundred thousand years. Half light year collisions occur every million years or so—long times on the human time scale, but just a blink of the eye on a geological time scale. Close encounters like these may be the answers to some of the mysteries of the solar system—the odd orbit of Pluto, for example.
The sun is by no means unique. Similar crashes must happen everywhere. Another may have occurred in the nearby Alpha Centura star system. Proxima, the closest star to us today, is a dwarf star moving away from two main stars of the system. It may be rebounding from hitting the principle stars or it may be orbiting those two with a half million year period. Or both. We can't tell yet.
The vacuum of interstellar space is full of debris—large and small. There are rogue stars and rogue planets, but most of them are too small to detect. The sky is filled with the wreckage of thirteen billion years of collisions. At least one chunk is thought to pass through the solar system every year. Recently, one passed close enough to the earth and the sun to be detected and monitored. Oumaumau crossed the plane of the solar system, bent in the sun's gravity, and sped on to its next interstellar encounter. Collisions like that will continue. Space is a busy place.
March 21, 2018
Spring break is a time to read for fun. Many students run off to Florida or Cabo, but books can take them anywhere. They can visit the moon or Mars. They can tour a national monument or a far off land—all without a passport or shots. Books cost less than airplane tickets. There are no long lines or flight cancelations. This spring, give a book to a kid who has been kidnapped by his phone. Enjoy a book yourself while you're at it.
The perils of spring break are legendary. There are drunk driving and hangovers, drugs and pregnancy just to name a few. Vicarious perils are better. Follow the misadventures of two couples whose spring break debauchery drifted into the Bermuda Triangle. Read about their interrupted revelry in this excerpt from Fish Story. Buy the complete book there direct from the publisher to see the consequences. Autographed copies are available.
March 14, 2018
There's still plenty to do out beyond Pluto. The New Horizons science probe accomplished its Pluto mission and continued outbound. It got past that planet with propellant leftover and instruments poised to explore where no man-made object has ever been. Opportunities to explore abound out there and competition for New Horizons' remaining resources heats up.
The spacecraft flew a suite of instruments past the former planet and turned Pluto from a fuzzy blob into an exotic place. The probe discovered moons and mapped the planet. It found nitrogen ice plateaus, methane mountains, and buried oceans of running water. New Horizons didn't stop there. It flew on into deep space—fully capable of exploring a planet all over again.
What lay beyond? The Kuiper Belt—a ring of relics from the formation of the solar system. The probe was steered toward a large chunk it could reach. Things are few and far between out there. Even New Horizons—the fastest man-made object ever—will take years to get there. When it does, it will fly by grabbing data on the run—just like it did at Pluto. It will send those few hours of pictures and measurements back to Earth as it continues on. We'll learn as much about that object as we did when the probe explored Pluto.
That encounter won't exhaust New Horizons. There will still be some science left in that old probe. This will be the last chance to reach that far out into space for decades. We shouldn't waste it. But what should we do with what's left? Redirecting the probe toward a second Kuiper belt object is one option. Are Kuiper Belt objects alike? Turning the probe's science packages into an extreme deep-space telescope is another idea. Such an observatory would operate where the sun truly does not shine. It could see things near-Earth telescopes can't. Other proposals to exploit this once-in-a-lifetime asset have been suggested. Choosing among them will be hard.
March 7, 2018
A swarm of debris orbits the Earth. The bits and pieces are everywhere from BB-size to entire rocket bodies. Every piece flies faster than a speeding bullet—twenty times faster. Each packs a wallop up to fifty times its weight in TNT.
Even the smallest scrap can inflict catastrophic damage. A single paint fleck pitted the windshield of the space shuttle. Ongoing collisions turn big ones into little ones up there. The little ones are still lethal/A Chinese antisatellite weapon test shattered one old satellite into thousands of pieces. Near Earth orbit is jam-packed with deadly discards.
Hazardous scraps endanger space assets. There are three to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station at any given time. The orbiting population will increase as more space-faring nations emerge, and the race to return to the moon heats up. Even the smallest impact could kill space farers or their space ships.
Satellite services are integral to modern society. They're critical to navigation, communication, weather forecasting, and more. A two-cent screw could kill a billion-dollar satellite leaving us lost, alone and uninformed.
How do we protect astronauts and satellites from space pollution? Air Force radar tracks every orbiting object bigger than a baseball. The Air Force alerts satellite operators to duck out of harm's way. That's a good start, but it's not enough. The sky is full of invisible killers smaller than baseballs.
Many orbiters are shielded against unavoidable impacts with the small stuff. Weight is an issue. Heavy armor is out. Layers of thin sheets protect targets. Lightweight shields use the fury of the impact against the impactor. The energy of the initial impact shatters a projectile. Its pieces spread out before striking the next layer. The second stage is thousands of smaller projectiles hitting at thousands of points on the second sheet. Each of those shatters in turn and the process repeats until the original projectile is ground to dust too small to penetrate any further layers. Shields begin to look like something out of an old war movie, but the satellites survive.
February 28, 2018
The last generation of human computers took us to the moon, to the planets and beyond. All computers were humans until about sixty years ago. In those days, slide rules gave answers good to a percent or two. When that wasn't good enough, pen and paper was the only option. Notebooks were bound with sequenced pages. Arithmetic was done in ink in them. Important results were signed and dated.
An all-woman math team helped make Jet Propulsion Laboratory the space science center it is today. A recent book—Rise of the Rocket Girls: the Women who Propelled us from Missiles to the Moon and Mars, Nathalia Holt, (Little. Brown & Co, 2016)—describes their role in the Lab's evolution.
The Lab began in 1939 when California Institute of Technology exiled the Suicide Squad's rocket propellant experiments to a remote desert location. The Lab went to war along with the rest of the country in 1942—their mission was to develop Jet Assisted Take Off to lift overloaded bombers off short runways. Success in that project led to engineering missiles after the war. But the team's interest was space. America's first satellite Explorer 1 was theirs. Many more Earth satellites followed. The math group's calculations designed missions to explore the moon and the nearby planets. Their crowning achievements included the Grand Tour which explored the outer planets despite Washington's objections, plus Mars orbiters and landers. Their legacy continues to this day.
Today when we whip out a calculator to calculate a waiter's tip, it's hard to imagine that rockets were engineered and pioneering space missions flown with pen and paper calculations. Calculators and electronic computers came late. The first computing machines were moody, cumbersome and slow. Human computers raced them and won for the first many years. Electronic computers supported the Apollo flights—but only after spot-checking against human-computed results. Human computers are extinct now. The rocket girls' successors have turned their math aptitudes toward programming electronic computers to continue our march into space. Pick up a copy of the book and meet the women behind the space program.
February 21, 2018
Going to the moon is practice for going to Mars. The planet Mars is cold with a little atmosphere and high radiation from the solar wind. Our moon is a lot like that. It's cold with no atmosphere. It's beyond Earth's magnetic field so it's bathed in the sun's radiation too. The moon and Mars have a lot in common.
Robots go to Mars and it’s moons. Humans go to Earth and it's moon. A Chinese moon landing is expected soon. Japan and India are reportedly planning one too. After a fifty-year hiatus, the USA is talking about returning men to the moon. SpaceX has sold two tickets to a tourist loop around the moon…someday. NASA plans loops, orbits, and landings within a decade. They are considering a space station orbiting the moon. That would be the ideal laboratory to test people and equipment under prolonged exposure to solar radiation and zero gravity.
Lunar orbit is a great place to try things out before sending them to Mars. It's easier and safer to get to. Mars rockets are on the drawing board; moon rockets are nearing the launch pad. Aborting a mission is different there. Earth is only three days away when something goes wrong. Mars is at least eight months off. Stranded on Mars describes a mission trapped a hundred million miles from help.
Humans will follow their robots to Mars. SpaceX looks forward to colonizing the planet. Their giant rockets are an important step toward delivering people to the planet's surface. Like today's Mars robots, tomorrow's Mars colonists will only get a one-way ticket to the red planet. A round trip is a far greater engineering challenge. Another interplanetary rocket will be required for the return trip. Most of it can be delivered and parked in Mars orbit. It must be fully fueled. That's a lot of mass to fly across the universe. Martian visitors will need an ascent vehicle to fly to their orbiting ride home. That may—or may not—be the craft they landed in. In any case, it will need a lot of propellants to reach orbit. NASA hopes to manufacture some or all of those propellants on Mars to avoid the cost of transporting and landing all that mass.
Returning to the moon is just the next step in the long journey to Mars.
February 14, 2018
Human casualties continue to mount in the war on mosquitos. The mosquito remains the deadliest animal on Earth. The malaria it spreads kills one pregnant woman or child every minute despite worldwide efforts to control the epidemic. A half-dozen other tropical diseases rage on as well. Last year's Zika outbreak left a trail of brain-damaged infants in its path. The Zika threat has faded from the headlines, but not from the hospitals.
The battle against man's deadliest enemy goes on. The latest tactic will release billions of diseased male mosquitos in a Miami suburb. (The males don't bite.) The offspring of those males infected with wolbachia bacteria die before reaching maturity. It is hoped that the net effect of this will be a reduction in the local mosquito population. That reduction will be temporary at best.
The war against the mosquito has been going on since 1901 when Walter Reed established the connection between the mosquito and yellow fever. Improving sanitation and reducing mosquito breeding grounds diminished yellow fever in the tropics. That improved the health of both US Army occupiers and indigenous populations of tropical territories acquired in the Spanish-American War. It enabled the construction of the Panama Canal—which had been thwarted by mosquito-borne disease up until that time. The success of such mosquito control operations inspired new standards in public health.
The war on mosquitos escalated. Insecticides were heavily used and widely effective—maybe too much so. Concerns about collateral effects on the environment led to the banning of DDT—an affordable weapon against the deadly mosquito. The mosquito population came roaring back. Modern "green" alternatives like bed-netting and designer insecticides have proven ineffective and impractical. Testing of high tech pipe dreams like infected or infertile males will continue while humans keep on dying.
February 7, 2018
Carbon dioxide doesn't deserve the bad rap it's gotten. The media has been branded CO2 a greenhouse gas, and blamed it for warming our planet. In fact, CO2 is a feeble greenhouse gas. Its effect is overwhelmed by that of water—the dominant greenhouse gas in Earth's atmosphere. There's a lot of water vapor in the air, and water is infrared active. Together those two factors together regulate Earth's climate.
The CO2 molecule is a rigid symmetric rod. It behaves more like nitrogen than like its triatomic cousin water. It freezes 140 F° lower than water does and has no liquid phase. Electrically, the molecule is a rock. It has neither a charge nor a dipole moment, so it's insoluble in water. Some CO2 gas can be forced into water, but it bursts out as soon as the champagne is uncorked.
CO2 gas is invisible. Light—infrared and all the rest—is an electromagnetic wave. An electrical change must accompany its absorption or emission. With no charge and no dipole moment, the CO2 molecule has nothing to change, so optical transitions are "forbidden." Only quantum mechanical corrections give it any infrared spectrum at all. Its absorptions and emissions are faint and occur in an infrared spectral region dominated by water vapor absorptions. CO2 absorbs a trace of the infrared that water vapor leaves behind. This is not the stuff of headline hype. If it were, Mars would be balmy with 960,000 parts per million CO2.
Forget "global warming" or "climate change." The principle hazard from our CO2 emissions is not to our atmosphere, but to our oceans. That's where most of the gas goes. A little dissolved CO2 reacts with H2O to form carbonic acid H2CO3 that acidifies everything from soft drinks to the oceans. The falling pH is affecting sensitive ocean ecosystems.
January 31, 2018
The flu is serious—deadly serious. Every year, the flu kills thousands—often many thousands. The 1918 flu season was the worst so far. It became the deadliest pandemic of all time. An estimated half billion people caught that disease; some one hundred million died of it that year—that's one person in every twenty worldwide. Only the twenty-five million deaths from the Black Plague of the Middle Ages even came close to that level.
This year and every year, the flu will infect millions. Each body will fight back, and will usually win its battle against the virus. Once that battle is won, the body becomes immune to further infection by that virus. New viruses attack vulnerable victims with impunity. As resistance spreads throughout the population, later viruses find fewer opportunities to infect and the epidemic dies out. Viruses evolve fast, and a new one soon appears to take the old one's place.
In 1918, the bird flu on a Kansas chicken farm adapted to human hosts with catastrophic consequences. The first 1918 flu patient reported to sickbay in Fort Riley, Kansas. Within a week, a hundred were hospitalized, then five hundred. The new flu started popping up all around the country. Troops from Fort Riley joined the American Expeditionary Force entering the First World War carrying this flu with them. Crowding and unsanitary conditions at the front lines spread the disease. Soon massive—but still classified—casualty levels showed up on both sides. German and Austrian forces were especially hard hit. They had to surrender. The flu ended the conflict. Highly contagious: it spread beyond the war zone and spanned the globe. It reached Asia and Australia within months. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Wards overflowed. Bodies piled up. Mortuaries couldn't keep pace. Terror spread.
The normal flu culls the herd: killing the aged and the infirmed. The 1918 flu did just the opposite. The effects were devastating. This flu switched the body's immune system into overdrive. The body attacked itself. The stronger the body's immune system, the greater the damage. The healthiest people suffered the harshest attacks. Those often proved fatal. The 1918 flu decimated the population of healthy twenty-something adults. The losses from that generation would propagate through history for decades to come.
This year's flu is nasty, but, by no means, a repeat of the 1918 one. It's sickening millions and killing thousands. Every year, the Centers for Disease Control tries to anticipate the latest flu virus and fields a vaccine to combat it. Each year, the virus comes up with a few surprises, and this year is no different. The flu shot is never 100% effective, but it's still important in protecting against the flu. Everyone who can needs to get a flu shot every year until a universal vaccine is developed.
January 24, 2018
Opioid overdoses kill more people under fifty than anything else. They are the scourge of GenX and GenY. Overdose deaths are a burden to society, but there's even more to it. There are junkies driving cars under the influence—killing themselves and others. There are junkies suiciding over their misery. There are junkies sharing needles picking up hepatitis, AIDS, and more. The walking wounded left behind are zombies—not much different from dead.
Addicts live in la la land. Their families live in hell. Living with zombies can't be easy. The dread of discovering loved ones dying fills family member's days. Anything the addict hasn't stolen to put up a vein goes to treat the problem. A family's life savings, their car, and their house can vanish in no time. Rehab is expensive and treatment breaks the bank. Finally the community picks up the user's tab.
Naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose if it is administered in time. It's available to counter the accidental overdoses encountered by first responders, by law enforcement and by morticians dealing with the drug epidemic. Emergency medical personnel, police and drug sniffing dogs are exposed to high levels of opioids in the line of duty. The residues on overdosed remains are hazardous to handling their bodies.
There's a fine line between getting high and overdose. Antidote availability encourages careless attitudes among drug users. They'll shoot up in emergency room parking lots for rapid rescue from casual overdoses. A recent New York Times article about a family with fentanyl-addicted adult children described a family meeting where the son overdosed four times in six hours. Each time the family called emergency responders who revived him. Hours later, he would do it again. Problem places like New Hampshire and West Virginia are stretched to the breaking point by their opioid users. How long can they afford to continue reviving junkies who overdose four times in six hours—at $2000 a pop?
January 17, 2018
Dropped from one NASA plan after another, Pluto became the only unexplored planet in our solar system. So the authorities demoted it. It was no longer a planet at all—just some mysterious object in the distant sky. Even the mighty Hubble telescope could barely see it. The frigid world was a blotchy blur covered in ices of materials that were gases or liquid everywhere else in the solar system. The farthest place in the known universe was a place science just had to see. Pluto exploration would complete NASA's survey of the solar system. A dedicated mission was planned, then canceled, then revived, and then halved again. New Horizons—the fastest manmade object ever—was built and launched before Congress could have its way with the Pluto program one more time. Twenty years of technology advances made New Horizons the most sophisticated planetary probe of all time.
The little orphan planet Pluto had a few surprises in store for the visiting space probe. One high-speed flyby captured a flood of information about Pluto. These data will be the basis of human understanding for the foreseeable future. (No return visit appears on the agenda of any space-faring nation today.) Preliminary analysis shows the orphan planet is a unique place. Rock and ice make up the planet, but Pluto's most obvious feature is a nitrogen ice glacier twice the size of Texas. The geography is extreme. There are rifts bigger than the Grand Canyon and mountains as tall as the Rockies. Coats of nitrogen ice sloughing off those mountains are building the giant glacier. Much of the planet is water ice hundreds of miles thick. It is thought to house liquid water beneath it. Frozen ejecta from cryovolcanos spewing liquid water dot the surface. Thousand-foot tall columns of methane ice are found there as well. Analysis of the Pluto data continues. There may be more surprises in store.
In the meantime, New Horizons is flying on to explore objects in the Kupier belt beyond. There, it will examine relics from the time of the creation of the sun.
Distant Pluto is no longer the farthest known planet. Since New Horizons was launched, thousands more planets have been discovered orbiting nearby stars—light-years not light-hours away. We've seen stars wiggle as their exoplanets swing around them. We've seen stars dim as their exoplanets blocked them. But we've yet to actually see an exoplanet. All are far beyond the capability of the Hubble telescope. Someday, we may get fuzzy images of a few of them. Like yesterday's fuzzy pictures of Pluto, there will still be lots more to learn about those planets. They may all be as unique and different as Pluto.
January 10, 2018
It's cold and snowing on Mars, too. The planet's poles are water ice. They're covered with drifts of dry ice snow in the winter. Carbon dioxide gas in the Martian atmosphere begins to freeze when the temperature drops below -110°F. The flakes sublime when things warm up above -110°F. (Subliming is different from melting. A solid sublimes directly to gas without ever being liquid.)
Earth orbits in the Goldilocks zone where water comes in solid, liquid and gaseous forms. Water vapor in the atmosphere condenses and precipitates as either liquid or solid—rain or snow. Our poles are covered with solid water. Much of the area between the poles is covered with liquid water.
Our planet isn't the only place with water in all three forms. The moons Enceladus and Europa are covered with layers of water ice. They host lakes and seas underneath all that ice. Cryovolcanos on those moons spew jets of water into space. Vapors and droplets freeze quickly. Some of the water crystals fall back to the surface as snow; some escape to form rings around their planets.
There's snow and ice all across the solar system. Io, another moon, has active volcanoes that generate sulfur snow. On Pluto, methane snow falls on nitrogen ice. (Methane freezes at -300°F and nitrogen at -346°F.) The snow on the coldest moon Triton is flakes of nitrogen. There are even places on the moon and on Mercury where the sun never shines and water ice and snow is believed possible.
We have discovered thousands more planets beyond our solar system. Some are Earth-like. Many are not. As we learn more about them and their moons, we expect to find winter there is just like winter at home.
January 3, 2018
Virtual reality is opening new frontiers in medicine. Virtual reality immerses the user in a computer-generated three-dimensional world. Viewed via specialized headsets, fantasy worlds offer modern playgrounds. Real world images support teaching, planning and operating.
Every medical student can now have a digital cadaver. There's no shortage of volunteers any more. The cadaver comes down with the disease of the week, and changes genders at the drop of a hat. Surgeries and dissections run smoothly. With UNDO and REBOOT options, the patient ends up no worse for wear. The student repeats the process until mastering it, and returns once more to prepare for exams.
Medical school is only the beginning. The digital body provides a test bed for planning challenging surgeries. It provides a realistic map of possible routes to a patient's defect or deformity. Surgical alternatives can be practiced and compared in virtual reality—where no one dies—before being tested in real reality—where patients do die.
Virtual reality is in today's operating rooms. Less invasive procedures shorten surgical recovery costs and times. For those, laparoscopic surgeries use miniscule instruments at the ends of long tubes going deep inside the body. The doctor has no direct visual image of the process. Tiny lights and cameras among the laparoscope end instruments provide real time images of the surgeon's working area. For the more demanding applications, that data is presented as virtual reality. Laparoscopic microsurgeries and biopsies done that way have a high success rate. Advanced versions using the Da Vinci Robot—which isn't a robot at all—employ the same kind of virtual reality interface between the surgeon and the operation. The patient fares as well as the virtual reality avatar.
December 27, 2017
How cold is it? People have been asking that question since the beginning of time. The answers have varied from "it's a three-dog night" to "it's ten below." We've discovered ways to put numbers on just how cold it is.
Simple materials expand when they get hotter and contract when they get colder. Just how much gives us a convenient measure of the temperature. Mercury is just one of many expanding liquids which have been used in measuring temperature. We trap a drop of it in a bulb leaving only a narrow channel for it to expand into. We read the mercury's rise there to tell the temperature. Fine capillaries yield precise measures to assess fevers; wider ones tell us whether we need a sweater today.
Long before there was mercury, there was brandy. The Galileo thermometer used a collection of balls of slightly different densities. Those lighter than the brandy floated; those heavier sank. As things heated up, the host liquid expanded. It became less dense. Fewer balls could float. How many gave temperature a number. The results were imprecise, and the Galileo thermometer is mainly decorative today.
Solids, liquids and gases all expand and contract with temperature. Their thermal responses support a range of temperature measurement and control applications. Metals swell and shrink with temperature—albeit differently. Binding two metal strips with differing thermal responses together creates a strip that flexes with temperature. It twists away from the side that expands more. Coiling such bimetallic strips amplifies the effect. These are the mechanisms inside many mechanical thermometers. Metals conduct electricity, so their position is easy to read. They're the temperature sensors inside many classic thermostats—keeping us warm inside no matter what the answer is to How cold is it outside?
December 20, 2017
The malaria super bug is here. The world's leading killer of women and children evolves drug resistance faster than humans can develop drugs against it. Malaria has been a scourge since the beginning of time. A century of efforts to eliminate the germ have bred a malaria parasite immune to a dozen malaria drugs. Efforts to eradicate its mosquito carrier have produced insecticide-resistant bugs.
A revolutionary new antimalarial drug, artemisinin, was successful for a few decades. Artemisinin resistance has now appeared in Asia and is spreading. Tropical Africa is bracing for the arrival of super mosquitos carrying super malaria. The current one-a-minute death rate could double until a new drug is found/
Evolution creates resistance—whether drug resistance or insecticide resistance. The first dose kills off the little old lady bugs. The next dose knocks off their wimpy sisters. And so it goes. All get sick. The weak die. Only the strong survive. The Hell's Angels bugs pass whatever advantage kept them alive on to their descendants. Repeat that process a thousand times and a resistant strain is created. Malaria parasites produce a new generation every couple of days—mosquitos every few weeks. Malaria rebounds from any medical threat within a few years. The process repeats with every new drug. When every drug is defeated, the parasite is a super-bug.
December 13, 2017
We're headed for a cosmic collision. Astronomers warn us that the Andromeda galaxy is headed straight for us at a quarter-million miles an hour. Andromeda's leading edge will hit the outer reaches of our Milky Way Galaxy in about two billion years. These galaxies—two whirling dervishes—will buzz saw through one other and move on.
Andromeda will zip across our galaxy for a few billion more years after it arrives. There will be twice as many stars in the night sky when that happens—that's about all. With only a few billion stars each scattered across a hundred thousand light years, both galaxies are mostly empty space. Their stars won't be crashing into each other. Near misses—by a light year or two will be more common. Their gravity may jostle a few stars and distort some constellations. Captive planetary systems may be distorted or ripped asunder. Bits and pieces may be ejected into interstellar space to wander as dark asteroids or rogue planets forever.
When it's all over, the two galaxies will travel on looking pretty much like they do today. By that time, our sun will have burned out. Our descendants will have long-since become an interstellar species or an extinct species.
December 6, 2017
The average American spends more than forty hours a week watching television and trolling social media. That's a full-time job without pay. Successful businessmen make time to read instead. Arthur Blank, a Home Depot founder, allots two hours a day to reading; billionaire Mark Cuban dedicates three hours a day to it. Successful people read a lot. Warren Buffett reads five hundred pages a day. Bill Gates reads a book a week. Mark Zuckerberg reads one every two weeks. If they have time for books, we and our children do too.
Children's reading shouldn't be just for homework. Don't condemn your kids to another holiday of season of soap operas and space invaders this year. Treat them to books they will enjoy—not just schoolwork enhancers—real enjoyable books. If they're lively, they may inspire a lifelong good habit..
The longest book starts with the first page. Visit your local library. Fill your home with books. Ask Santa for science fiction and adventure stories. Check my books out for a few suggestions. Young adults interested in science, engineering, or medicine may enjoy short essays like this one collected in What Color Are Little Green Men? You and your kids can travel from the Bermuda Triangle to the bottom of the sea or all the way to Mats in my novels. Send the kids somewhere they've never been before—without ever leaving home.
November 29, 2017
A shard from the heavens zipped through our solar system last month. This interstellar asteroid was as cold as deep space, so it presented no heat signature. It was only detected by the sunlight it reflected on its way out of our solar system.
The object was detected in Hawaii. Tracking showed it was not just another asteroid and the world pointed its telescopes in its direction. The interstellar visitor was given a Hawaiian name Ouamuamua (pronounced like it came from the Beach Boys silly song Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow of fifty years ago.) The name means "scout." It was a small dark solid—probably rock. It carried no ice or other volatile substance that would have formed a comet-like tail when passing close to the sun. It was a tumbling needle-shaped object some four football fields long. It was flying at sixty thousand miles an hour—twice the speed of the fastest man-made object to date. It must have flown millions of years getting here because there's nothing close by in the direction it came from. Ouamuamua swerved in the sun's gravity and flew off into eternal night before we could learn much more about it.
There must be countless others like Ouamuamua out there. The universe has evolved through almost fourteen billion years of violence. Interstellar clouds have collapsed into stars that burned bright for a few billion years, then sputtered and died cataclysmic deaths. Leftovers from star formation became orbiting discs of debris. Some of that debris coalesced into solid bits and pieces; those merged into bigger chunks—asteroids, comets, and even planets. Growth was violent. Hard collisions shifted orbits and even kicked bodies right into interstellar space. Crashing into passing stars or planets bumped more pieces off into space. There's fourteen billion years of cosmic shrapnel out there somewhere.
Space is filled with swarms of these interstellar vagabonds, but they are among the most challenging objects to see. They are cold and dark—almost as dark as black holes. We've detected a few rogue planets floating free through space. Those are nearby and large enough to retain some core heat. There must be many more of them we can't see. Smaller bits and pieces—like our recent visitor—must be everywhere.
November 22, 2017
Earth just emailed extraterrestrials.
Astronomers announced the discovery of an "earth-like" planet a mere eleven light years away. That's the distance light travels in eleven years—or the distance the fastest man-made object could travel in a quarter million years … longer than humans have been around. Look for a return email in twenty-five years or so. A drop-in visit may take a while longer.
There's been no direct observation of the new planet or of any of the other earth-like exoplanets in the neighborhood—only the oscillation of their host stars as they orbit. Images are not possible yet—even for the closest one around Proxima B where the aliens in my novel Dead Astronauts came from. The newly discovered planet is a little bigger than earth, and just the right temperature for liquid water. Whether it or any other of these planets host liquid water or an atmosphere is unknown. There's always hope that earth-like conditions have prevailed, and intelligent life has evolved. So why not plunge ahead and email them? What could go wrong? PLENTY, according to Stephen Hawking—probably the smartest human alive today.
A group dedicated to Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, METI, has gone ahead and beamed a message at the planet. Communicating with humans on the opposite side of the globe is difficult. Communicating with other intelligent earthlings—like dolphins or squid—has yet to be accomplished. Communicating with aliens should be a real challenge. What did the METI message contain? It is reported that they broadcast some digital music and some basic math to demonstrate our culture and our technology. METI's next message will contain a callback number and a due date.
No telling how the aliens are expected to decode the METI messages if they receive them at all. Will they decide to respond? Or will their own Stephen Hawking urge caution?
Look forward to an empty email box. The METI signal will have dispersed over a cosmic expanse by the time it arrives. Human technology couldn't detect the METI message or the extraterrestrial answer against the background of space noise.
November 15, 2017
The frontiers of medicine took a giant step forward. Stem cells and gene therapy reversed a usually fatal genetic disorder.
A young boy's skin couldn't make one of the proteins that glue the epidermis on. His skin would flake and fall off at the slightest touch. He was hospitalized with only 20% of his skin attached. His prognosis was grim. A skin graft was his only hope. His body rejected his father's donation. He had no closer living relative—except himself.
A graft of his own defective skin would not help. If only the defect could be corrected. Dermatologists took a patch of his remaining skin, and reversed its development back to stem cells. They attached healthy copies of the boy's defective gene to a virus and treated the stem cells with it. That gene would function as a template for synthesis of the missing protein. The doctors then reversed the stem cell process and induced the modified ones to mature into skin tissue. The boy's body didn't reject those laboratory skin cells.
Today, medical laboratories are growing skin for burn victims. Using the same technology, they grew healthy skin for this patient. At least 80% of his body was covered with his new skin. The procedure was a success. Two years later, he is leading an unrestricted life—playing soccer without worrying about his skin falling off.
Pioneering efforts like these demonstrate the potential of medical technologies under development in the laboratory today. They will make their way into your doctor's repertoire in good time.
November 8, 2017
Thinking of traveling to Mars? Be sure to ask about a round-trip ticket. Getting there is only the beginning. The trip home won't be nearly as easy as getting there.
You left Earth from a dedicated facility custom-designed to launch you on your journey. It had plenty of electricity and water. There were redundant backups and a thousand trained experts standing by. Air was free there.
You'll return from a primitive launch pad in the middle of an alien desert. You'll be on your own with no facilities and no backups. Your pilot will be the veteran of a thousand simulated launches of a vehicle that has never been flown before. Air will be more precious than gold. You'll be dead twenty minutes before Earth knows you're gone.
The and back leg of a Mars mission is an essential part of mission planning. Returning astronauts will rendezvous with an Earth return vehicle preplaced in Mars orbit. The bus home will have flown there on a minimum energy trajectory and then sat unattended in the cold and the radiation of space for a year or two. There will be no backup. The vehicle must wake up fully capable for the ride home. That's step two.
Step one will be equally unforgiving. Transport from the planet's surface to orbit will require a major rocket launch. This massive rocket will be built on Earth, flown to Mars, and landed with the astronauts. Transporting something that big to Mars will be expensive. It is hoped that the propellants for the return trip can be manufactured on site. That would yield a dramatic cost savings.
We need to learn more about Martian resources before proceeding down that path. Mars has water—where and how much we don't know. Solar-powered electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen has been suggested. We'll need the oxygen. Hydrogen is hard to store. Hydrogen storage tanks are huge, and hydrogen gas leaks through most seals. It may be best to tie the hydrogen to something else—like nitrogen—for storage and handling. (Hydrazine, a nitrogen/hydrogen compound is a common rocket fuel.) We may gain hands-on experience turning moon water into propellants before venturing beyond. Mars also has methane—again where and how much we don't know. Methane is a much better fuel to store, but is useless without oxygen. The Martian atmosphere is mainly carbon dioxide. There are catalysts for solar-powered production of carbon monoxide and oxygen from carbon dioxide. (Carbon monoxide burns okay.) Whatever approach works, the first industry on Mars will be a chemical plant.
November 1, 2017
American addicts are funding a war on America. Afghanistan is the principle source of heroin and opium—part of the opioid epidemic sweeping the country. The New York Times reports the Taliban is making billions off those drugs. In the beginning, the Taliban taxed the opium poppy farmers in territory they controlled. Now it has expanded into the business of refining and processing their crops for export. The equipment required is simple and cheap. An illicit opium lab can be set up in a day. Losses to drug raids are rare and affordable. The billions the Taliban earns make for wealthy warlords and buy weapons to kill American troops and allies.
The demand for drugs funds a criminal empire far beyond Afghanistan. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone require more synthesizing opioids have created the current drug overdose epidemic. The cartels of Central and South America have battled their local governments for a generation. Addicts' dollars will fund criminal and paramilitary operations worldwide until we do something about it.