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Friday, September 21, 2012

To OV-105 Endeavour: Farewell Old Friend.

Farewell Old Friend,

For an old friend, she was the youngest in the fleet. Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Columbia, Enterprise and, of course, Endeavour, they were their own type of beautiful.  Originally the shuttle program was a glorified space trucking system.  Taking supplies and experiments to and from the International Space Station.  After the first few initial space flights, everything began to seem ordinary.  The shuttle would travel to space, perform it's mission and then glide back through the atmosphere.  Catch a ride back to the Kennedy Space Center and repeat.

But Then

I remember watching President Reagan giving the speech honoring our brave Astronauts who, as he put it
"Slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of god."
I remember my elementary school teacher telling our class that she has applied for NASA's teacher in space program, the one which Christa McAuliffe got into, and died riding Challenger.  I remember that day in 1986,  we watched the Challenger launch in class because it carried, a teacher. I had watched many shuttle launches with my father, I knew something was wrong, 72 seconds after lift off when she began to break up it wasn't the boosters separating it was something else.  I remember in my class our teacher didn't know what to say to twenty 3rd graders who just watched 7 astronauts die.  I didn't think this goodbye would be that difficult to write but it was very sad, and still brings a tear to my eye.

Endeavour got her Name

prior to mission STS-127, May 31, 2009
I participated when NASA later sponsored a naming campaign for the next shuttle that was just called "the orbiter" by the news outlets.  We were instructed to find and research an old sailing vessel that contributed in some way to exploration.  Always having loved pirates, especially Black Beard, I wrote an essay asking NASA to name the new orbiter the Queen Anne's Revenge, I still think that would have been really cool.

Endeavour, named after the HMS Endeavour gained a fitting name.  the HMS Endeavour rounded cape horn and explored Australia.  She was commanded by Lieutenant James Cook (later Captain Cook) and she observed the 1769 transit of Venus.  But I still like the Queen Anne's Revenge.

The unfortunate result of the closing of the shuttle program is that NASA now does not have a manned space transport.  And what is truly sad about this, is due to  massive budget cuts for the past 31 years NASA's manned flight program consisted only of low earth orbit flights.  

We Can't Stop Here

Not to take any glory from a  program that has yielded so many achievements.  Achievements which have allowed us to learn so much.  And still with continuing budget cuts and the federal government's inability to act in the interest of our future, we still have not put a man on Mars, and we have not returned to the Moon.

 Quoting Robert Zubrin
"It shouldn't be humans to Mars in 50 years. It should be humans to Mars in 10"
And then after that, lets land on Titan or an asteroid.  Lets discover if there is life under the icy surface of Europa.

My great hope is that with the last flight of Endeavour, and so many people watching the skies, so many tweets and so many instagram photos.  So many facebook posts and so many news reporters covering the shuttle's last chapter.  My hope is that we do not lose the excitement we felt watching OV-105 taking her final flight.

We must go on we must enter deep space and we must succeed.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Virgin Mars?

Virgin Mars

Sir Richard Branson recently announced that he is "determined" to establish a human population on Mars.  Branson is well known for his virgin brand record stores, phone service, Virgin airways and of course Virgin Galactic an upcoming space tourism venture.

Mars as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope
Branson is also  known for his relaxed yet driven style, and although I would prefer to see NASA or the ESA (but really NASA) establish the first Mars settlement, if we can see an increase in our technological knowledge or capabilities due to Branson's Mars endeavors it would be better than no advancement at all. 

At a point in history where NASA's budget is shrinking steadily, an investment by the private sector is better than no investment.  However what private sector companies develop, they own.  They do not have to share their technology, and they can charge whatever price they wish.  When the public sector (NASA, ESA, National Science Foundation, etc) develop a technology it is available freely to the public to be built upon.  New companies and in some cases whole new industries are created. 
Richard Branson
Photo by David Shankbone

Science and scientists who traditionally had worked in the public sphere were able to share and build on ideas working cooperatively and arriving at solutions faster than they would be able to alone.  Private entities wish to keep information secret, or wish to patent it to protect their investment.  This in and of itself is not evil or wrong, obviously who wouldn't want to protect their investment, but generally this can slow down formation of new theories and technologies.

So, Sir Richard Branson, Good luck!  I hope you are able to open a luxury resort on Mars, I just hope Penny4NASA and citizen support for our public space program allows NASA to beat you there.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Curiosity Day 43

This is how Curiosity Rolls!

Curiosity's Progression by Sol
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The above map shows the progress Curiosity has made from sol 0, (August 6, 2012) through today Sol 43 (September 19th, 2012).

Depicted above is the trek Curiosity has made after setting down at Bradbury Landing.  The trek follows an eastward path toward the Glenelg area.

Glenelg, Mars (or Glenelg Intrigue) is located near Gale Crater and is a natural meeting point for three types of terrain which Curiosity will examine, one of which is layered bedrock which will feel the bite of Curiosities drill.

The name Glenelg came from a geological point of interest near Yellowknife, Canada.  Other named geological features in the area derive their names from the Yellowknife area.  The name is also a palindrome which is dovetails nicely with  Curiosity's intended path which is programmed to pass Glenelg twice. 

Currently Curiosity has 290 Meters on it's odometer, and hopefully many more klicks to go!


I previously covered Curiosity's first jaunt here

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thorium Nuclear Power NOW!

The Case for Thorium

Japan's Nuclear Problem

Recently, news reports have indicated that Japan will be discontinuing their Nuclear power programs, this is not only startling but disheartening.  As more and more coal burning plants are constructed CO2 gas emissions continue to rise and continue to increase the temperature of our global climate.

I know many will cite the fact that fissile waste material is dangerous and expensive to store and arguably worse pollutant than CO2, and that is a fair assessment, this is where Thorium comes in.

Before I make my case for Thorium I want to go over the some of the history of nuclear power and some of the reasons why it was relatively unsafe and why Thorium is safe and necessary if our species is to last on this planet with real quality of life in the future.

Part of the reason so many nuclear reactors were built in the 60s and 70s was to gain plutonium which in turn was used in nuclear weapons in the escalating arms race against the USSR.

Hundreds of water cooled fission reactors were built all over the world.  Water cooled reactors were much more popular and can easily been observed with the large cooling towers and large containment structures around the reactor itself.  In order to efficiently turn the turbines water is super-heated under pressure, if pressure were to be lost the liquid would flash into steam, a volume differential of over 1500 to 1.  If the containment structure is too small, or if there is a leak, then water bearing radioactive material would enter the atmosphere.

Now not all is doom and gloom, even with our current nuclear technology, watt for watt nuclear power is the safest energy source currently in use claiming fewer lives per watt than any other power source.

Enter Thorium

Thorium has actually been used as a fuel for many years and there were several reactors built in the United States that operated without a significant accident.  There are several reactors currently using Thorium as a fuel supply, for example the Indian 3-Stage Program. Thorium is the 39th most common element in the earth's crust making it readily available the however for Thorium to become fissile it must first be transmuted to Uranium 233.  With current fission reactors this is possible and as with India's 3 stage process the first two stages are utilized to create the thorium fuel used in the final stage.

The Thorium molten salt reactor design was championed by Dr. Alvin Weinberg of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Originally designed for use in long range aircraft and known as the "chemist's reactor" Oak Ridge studied and experimented with the Molten Salt Thorium Reactor for many years until 1973 when Dr. Weinberg was fired by the Nixon administration. Dr. Weinberg was fired because he wished to continue pursue Thorium and Molten Salt research but the administration wished to research the riskier Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors.  After Dr. Wineberg's departure from Oak Ridge Thorium research in the US waned.


Interest in Molten Salt Reactors powered by Thorium fuel has recently increased due in large part to the efforts of Kirk Sorensen who came upon the idea while attempting to design a power source for the Moon.  He found that there is a great amount of Thorium on the Moon and although there is no atmosphere allowing solar energy to work well there is a two week night while the Moon orbits the Earth making solar energy much less effective due to current battery storage technology.  While researching methods of nuclear power generation he found a book dealing with Thorium reactors from the early days of Nuclear Power.


We worry about nuclear meltdowns, or environmental issues causing problems with nuclear plants (fukushima in japan for example) or spent fuel disposal issues.  Although the odds of another Chernobyl or 3-mile island occurring are very small there is a possibility with ageing infrastructure and cost cutting.  If a water cooled nuclear reactor loses the ability to circulate it's coolant it can melt down or breach, if a Thorium powered Molten Salt Reactor loses the ability to circulate the Molten Salt coolant a salt plug at the bottom of the reactor will melt and the liquid will drop into a small containment system below the reactor.  Because Molten Salt will not boil and does not require expansion if there is a loss of pressure.  Japan has publicly stated that they are going to be steering away from nuclear power but are considering Thorium as an answer.

More Power To you!


Below I have provided several links to additional information as well as Kirk Sorensen's Ted Talk about Thorium Reactors

Smart Planet Article on Thorium
Japanese Consider Thorium
Kirk Sorensen's Site

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and Death

Measles, Mumps, Rubella and Death

In 1998 The Lancet published a paper penned by Andrew Wakefield linking autism with the MMR(Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine.  Media coverage was wide spread including impassioned interviews of parents of autistic children who believed that they had caused their children's autism by inoculating them with the MMR vaccine.  This caused confidence in the vaccine to falter world-wide resulting in fewer children receiving the vaccination and greater instances of outbreaks of Measles, Mumps and Rubella.

This new religion of those who follow the anti-vaccine mantra will not be swayed.  Even after several papers have been published refuting the results of Wakefield's paper, vaccine administration rates have remained lower and incidence of measles have increased dramatically.  

We all care and worry about our kids.  We worry about the food they eat, the education they receive, and what may be in store for them in the future.  It is hard for us to be impartial and look at things based on data and science when our children's health is in the balance especially, when sensational claims by experts, friends, and media outlets seed doubt in our minds.  The reaction of most parents it to avoid any perceived risks for their children and this is natural, it is gut instinct, a feeling. But feelings and gut instincts are not truth. No matter how much we would like them to be they are not, and because of this we should educate ourselves and wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of reason and data.

Wakefield & Bad Science = Rise of the Virus

Measles Infection
I twas found in his paper, Wakefield was found to have had several undisclosed financial conflicts of interest with MMR studies.  He was given the opportunity to replicate his experiments or retract his paper and he declined to do either.  10 of his coauthors retracted the paper's interpretation in 2004 yet he remained steadfast in his support of his position.

The results are that we now face a world where uncommon diseases will be come common again. Mumps and Measles are on the rise.  In the England and Wales during the first 6 months of 2012 twice as many cases of measles have been reported as had been reported in the same time period for 2011.  These diseases have been taken for granted for decades because vaccines have protected us and our children.

Heard Immunity

Those who do not immunize their children are putting all of us at risk.  They can, not only contract and spread diseases causing billions in public funds but due to the larger un-vaccinated population, those who are unable to receive vaccination because of medical issues are no longer protected by heard immunity.  Heard immunity occurs where a large percentage of a population is vaccinated against a disease. Those who have not been administered vaccination are relatively safe because of the large number of vaccinated people that surround them.  This reduces the probability that they will encounter an infected person and, if infected the are much less likely to infect others.

Those who choose  not to inoculate their children are not only making the decision to leave their children unprotected from potentially deadly diseases like the measles, but they are also choosing to put children who are unable to be vaccinated at risk as well.

Please, read everything about the MMR Vaccine and understand the entire picture before making a decision, and I encourage you to get your children vaccinated!


Here are several links that discuss the flawed study as well as other general vaccination information:

MMR Vaccination Rates (Europe 2011)