Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NASA's Limited Resourrces Delaying Important Science

The current delays with the space shuttle Endeavour launch, are holding up the launch of some lunar probes.
NASA will try again to launch the space shuttle Endeavour on June 17, and still push to get the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) under way this week as well.

Both spacecraft were scheduled to launch from Florida that day, after a gaseous hydrogen leak forced the shuttle program to scrub Endeavour's planned June 13 launch. But in an effort to "maximize" the space agency's launch opportunities this week, the LRO team relinquished its June 17 slot to the space shuttle program to give Endeavour one more chance to lift off to the International Space Station (ISS) before its launch window closes until July.

The glitch with the shuttle is not a big issue, since things as complicated as aircraft (or in this case, a spacecraft) always have problems. The big issue, however, is that NASA is apparently unable to launch the rocket with the probes while the shuttle is still sitting on the pad. The official NASA press release on the matter, doesn't mention the reason why this is the case.

There are a couple of reasons why this might be, but they are immaterial. The fact that NASA can't send the probes up with a shuttle on the pad, is inexcusable. If this nation is going to be serious about space, then it must be able to launch a vehicle, manned or unmanned, at any time, with no delays or hitches because there's something else waiting to go up. Costs for spaceflight will only go down as they become more commonplace, and that can't happen if NASA's facilities are tied up because something on another launch pad is having problems.

As I write this, NASA is twittering that weather conditions are making it impossible to fuel the shuttle. If the shuttle doesn't get fueled by a certain point, then they can't do the launch of the shuttle, and its mission to the ISS will have to wait, so that the lunar probes can be launched. Again, not at all what we want in a spacefaring nation.

UPDATE: NASA is now saying that they're fueling Endeavour's tanks.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mars Needs Oceans, It Seems

A controversial new theory holds promise for terraforming Mars.
The controversial new paper, published in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society), will deflect geophysicists’ attention from postulated motion of conducting fluids in the Earth’s core, the twentieth century’s answer to the mysteries of geomagnetism and magnetosphere.

Professor Gregory Ryskin from the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University in Illinois, US, has defied the long-standing convention by applying equations from magnetohydrodynamics to our oceans’ salt water (which conducts electricity) and found that the long-term changes (the secular variation) in the Earth’s main magnetic field are possibly induced by our oceans’ circulation.
If this theory holds true, then one of the big objections to settling Mars, its lack of a magnetic field, might be removed.

Warm the planet up enough to keep water liquid, and as oceans form and flow around the planet, a magnetic field might just form around the planet, protecting colonists from radiation.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

US Gov't Projects Energy Demands to Increase 44%

While CO2 emissions will increase 39% over 2006 levels.
World marketed energy consumption is projected to grow by 44% between 2006 and 2030, driven by strong long-term economic growth in the developing nations of the world, according to the reference case projection from the International Energy Outlook 2009 (IEO2009) released today by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

World carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise from 29.0 billion metric tons in 2006 to 33.1 billion metric tons in 2015 and 40.4 billion metric tons in 2030—an increase of 39% over the projection period. The IEO2009 reference case does not include specific policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions

With strong economic growth and continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels expected for most of the non-OECD economies, much of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions is projected to occur among the developing, non-OECD nations. In 2006, non-OECD emissions exceeded OECD emissions by 14%. In 2030, however, non-OECD emissions are projected to exceed OECD emissions by 77%.

As I pointed out in a previous posting, current climate models (which have served as the basis for forming legislation designed to combat global warming) are wrong, and demonstrate that we've underestimated the amount of damage that's being done by our current emissions. I'm not going to claim that these estimates of projected energy growth are wrong, but if we want a "clean" source of energy to power the future, we're going to have to find a lot of it, and quickly.

Biofuels are often touted as being a way to reduce our carbon footprint. That overlooks a significant problem with them, however.
Study Finds Water Footprint for Bioenergy Larger Than Other Forms of Energy; Bioelectricity the Smallest, Biodiesel the Largest

Researchers at the University of Twente, Netherlands have calculated the water footprints (WFs) of bioenergy from 12 crops that currently contribute the most to global agricultural production: barley, cassava, maize, potato, rapeseed, rice, rye, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet, sugar cane, and wheat. In addition, their study includes jatropha, an energy crop.

In general they found that bioelectricity is more water-efficient than first-generation biofuels (due largely to the ability to use the entire biomass to produce energy, rather than just the starch or oil fraction of the yield for liquid fuel production). They also found that the WF of bioethanol on a m3 of water per GJ of fuel basis appears to be smaller than that of biodiesel. Their results appeared 2 June in an open access paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

This is bad news, because supplies are dwindling.
Global Environmental Outlook 4, edited by Mirjam Schomaker and published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in October 2007 claims, “Available water resources continue to decline as a result of excessive withdrawal of both surface and groundwater, as well as decreased water run-off due to reduced precipitation and increased evaporation attributed to global warming”.

So, biofuels do not look to be the savior of us as many people once thought. One can speculate that fusion power will finally hit that breakthrough we've been promised for the past 50+ years, but betting on it seems like a foolish proposition when the survival of the species is at stake. Solar and wind are viable, of course, but not without their own environmental problems.
It begins with agreeing which sensitive areas should remain undeveloped. Wind and solar power are pollution free, but they are not impact free. They leave an industrial footprint on the land, and some pristine places would be forever altered by their presence.

That's why my friends at NRDC got together with Google Earth and started mapping out public lands where renewable development is not appropriate. Some of the spots colored in on the map are obvious--national parks, wilderness areas, and national monuments where energy development is already prohibited by law or federal policy.

But the map also illustrates places where development should be avoided, even if it isn't illegal. These include the hundreds of state parks that visitors rely on for hiking and other recreation. They also include proposed wilderness areas being considered by Congress, such as the 9.5 million acres of stunning scenery in Southern Utah that I hope gains protection through America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.

The remarkable thing is that even when you set these areas aside, there is plenty of land to develop solar and wind projects. The state of California recently did a similar mapping process and found that when it removed all the environmentally sensitive lands, California still has renewable potential of about 500,000 MW--that's greater than the state's peak demand.
So, solar and wind could exceed California's current peak demand levels, without being sited on environmentally sensitive land, but what about their peak demand in 20 years? Will it be enough then? How about 50 years? One thing is certain, energy demands are not going to be decreasing, so long as our technological society continues to advance.

Yes, devices will become more efficient, and use less energy, but we'll have more devices in the future, not less, and things which presently do not use energy, will no doubt have energy demanding circuits added to them. Books have never been powered, and now we have the Kindles from Amazon which use a modest amount of power. Of course, their demands are more than off-set by the savings provided by not having to print and ship physical books around (and as someone who has worked in the publishing industry in the past, I can state that immense amounts of energy are wasted by book companies and retailers). However, for one to use a Kindle, you need some kind of cellphone connection (the towers require energy) or an internet connection, and unlike a printing press which can be shutdown for periods of time, must always be on, if they're going to be meaningfully useful.

Perhaps one day we'll have a device which is an "all-in-one" PC/phone/book reader/MP3 player/game device/etc, but we'll also have other things we can't even imagine now. Perhaps our walls will be video monitors, or we'll be able to borrow the processing power in our dishwashers and other appliances when we need to do some heavy duty number crunching. What good does it do you to reduce the power demand of a device, if the number of devices needing power outstrips the savings by an order of magnitude or larger?

Space, however, offers us a rather benign source of solar power. Orbiting panels can generate power without worry of weather or the dark of night, and require no land (while the antenna arrays to receive the beamed power do take up space, building a space elevator, having power fed down the main cable, and then distributed from there, takes up almost no land by comparison). Of course, someone living on Mars wouldn't have to worry about having a large carbon footprint or if their solar panels were installed on an environmentally sensitive stretch of land.

More Money for Space Exploration Means a Stronger Economy

A recent story on Marketplace about the housing market, makes the claim that until the housing market recovers, the economy won't recover, and there are plenty of problems with the housing market which can sabotage an economic recovery. This story does not address the whole issue, by any means, in my opinion.

Here is something to consider:

1.) The US economy (and the global economy as well) is presently in the toilet because the "engine" which drives the US economy (housing and the financial markets) has collapsed.

2.) "Monoculture" farming (i.e. growing one type of crop) is generally recognized as a Really Bad IdeaTM because if anything happens to the crop (And monoculture crops are exceedingly vulnerable to disease. Ask the Irish or banana farmers.), then your entire economy will implode.

3.) The efforts at restoring the US economy are primarily focused on "correcting" the problems with the system and not ensuring that other industries play an equal role in driving the US economy. (We'll prop GM up, but we're not looking at putting other industries in Detroit, even though many of the jobs that have been lost at GM will not be replaced once GM is out of government control.)

4.) Putting boatloads of money into the space program helps create a diverse economy and can put many of the unemployed autoworkers back to work (the machinist who made car parts can make parts for a spaceship just as easily).

5.) The spin offs from the space program have lead to things like improved fire retardant gear, medical devices, and the like. The spin offs from the financial sector lead to Collaterialized Debt Obligations, ARMs, and the like.

6.) Having a large high tech industry attracts highly educated people to the US (who tend to make a lot of money), which adds to the economy and the tax base. Many highly educated folks are leaving the US to go to work in India and China, because the opportunities are greater there, even if the money isn't. If we put more into the space program than anyone else, a lot of those people will be inclined to stay in the US (since they're not likely to work on a manned mission to the Moon/Mars in India).

Monday, June 1, 2009

NASA's Human Spaceflight Review Committee Announced

Two former astronauts make up the group.
Norman Augustine will chair the independent review of U.S. human space flight plans. During the course of the review, the panel will examine ongoing and planned NASA development activities and potential alternatives in order to present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable and sustainable human space flight program following the space shuttle's retirement. The committee will present its results in time to support an administration decision on the way forward by August 2009.

"I look forward to working with the members of the committee to assist in defining the future U.S. human space flight program," Augustine said. "The members offer a broad spectrum of professional backgrounds, and we are all committed to offering sensible proposals that will serve the White House and NASA in their deliberations."
There's only a short period of time before they announce their findings, so start composing your emails to them now. (Sally Ride and Dr. Leroy Chiao being former astronauts can probably be reached via NASA.)