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That grade just keeps getting better…you’d almost have some hope for humanity

I’ve posted before about fusion power and how depressingly slow its progress has been.  The concept is quite simple, on paper.  Generate enough heat and pressure in a pellet of deuterium/tritium fuel, the nuclei start to fuse, huge amounts of energy are released, and we never have to worry about global warming, renewable energy, or powering really, really big starships ever again.  It is the power of the stars, and it could revolutionize our world.  In practice, however, it has proved devilishly tricky to accomplish.  Fusion itself is easy enough, it’s ignition that is the real challenge.  Ignition is the point at which the reaction becomes self-sustaining, which is the only way for fusion to be a practical power source.

Recently, the National Ignition Facility, America’s most advanced fusion research facility, achieved a milestone that would have the whole world abuzz, were it not currently impossible for them to publish their results in mainstream channels.  During a test, they were able to finally produce more energy from the fuel than was pumped into it by 192 high powered lasers.  Time to party, everyone!  The stars are in reach!

Sadly, their funding is in jeopardy.  With all the difficulty that fusion has had, the government is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with pouring money into the project.  This breakthrough could renew interest – but they’re not currently able to publish the results in their normal channels, because of, you guessed it, the government shut down.  If the project gets shut down after what’s just happened, I think I’d just have to leave the planet in my (not nuclear fusion powered) starship.*  Plus, not only are they researching fusion power, but they were featured in the new Star Trek movie. – it’s a minor miracle that the website is still up – NASA’s is shut down (which means no Astronomy Picture of the Day or anything…sadness)




*If only I really had one of those…


Begun, the Star Wars have

This past week, China continued on its trend of shaking the world up a bit by shaking up objects in space.  After a missile launch in 2007 that destroyed an inert weather satellite, they have just used three satellites, one with a mechanical arm of some sort, to capture another satellite.  It wouldn’t be a great stretch of the imagination to see such a system being used to destroy satellites, like, say the ones that run our GPS system, which just happens to be essential to almost all of our military technology, and much of our civilian infrastructure, as well.

You may ask “what do we have that can counter this?  Can our satellites just pull a DS9, and hail these other satellites and say “hey, I’ve got 6,000 photon torpedoes locked onto you?””  The answer to that is, as far as I know, no.  This is not to say that we may not have some really amazing classified technology already deployed that could rip these other mechanical grabbers to shreds, it just means that I don’t know about it (that wouldn’t be a great stretch of the imagination, either).  Now, if you were to ask if we could have such technology, the answer is yes.  For instance, a laser system that shoots things out of the sky that we have successfully tested on aircraft carriers.  Or maybe something even more amazing.

Still, what does it mean that China is pursuing such avenues?  It has become obvious that they have a very ambitious space program.  They plan to launch to the moon sometime around 2020, and they keep running things like this, and they even have their own space station in the works.

It is still interesting to note, though, that we have all of this information, despite this activity having been part of China’s “Covert weapons program.”

Emergency Mission to Mars

In the works for the past several years, NASA’s MAVEN program was scheduled to launch November 18th, which is the single best day to launch something to Mars for the next 11 years or so.  (So if you have something you’ve been meaning to send to your grandparents on Mars, do it now).  There is a weeklong launch window, and preparations need to be going right now.  Unfortunately, some 97% of NASA is shut down due to the government shut down.  (The 3% is pretty much just the personnel necessary to make sure that our friends up on ISS are still alive).

However, MAVEN has officially qualified as an emergency, and the launch is back on!  Though its science mission was not enough for it to make the list, the fact that it would be supporting our rovers on the surface proved to be a sufficient reason to launch anyway.  NASA pretty much said that we have a couple of really expensive rovers on the surface being supported only by two aging satellites, which, they say, could croak at any moment (this statement is only not ominous when talking about frogs), and if they do, we are likely to lose those very expensive rovers, which would be a huge waste of money.  And then we’d put in a request for more funding and make your jobs even harder.

And so, the first ever emergency rescue mission to another planet is being prepped for launch.  Never mind that the people in charge of making sure we don’t get smashed to bits by hurricanes are right now working for no pay, though it would appear that, perhaps in response to their very subtle protest, they will be paid after the government works things out.

Just a note of interest; this government shut down has affected infrastructure for billions of miles, all the way beyond our solar system and across multiple planets.  Curiosity and Opportunity have been furloughed and placed in safe mode (do you have any idea how long it takes a rover to get anywhere?  And now they’re just sitting there, doing nothing), and we are no longer processing data sent from the many probes we have our in space, including Voyager I, which, recently left the solar system.

Branes, Black Holes, and Multiple Dimensions: The new Theory of the Universe is the best one yet!

A recent article I read discussed something which always gets me very excited; it was a new theory for the origin/nature of the Universe.  Inflationary Cosmology is, of course, the leading theory for how our Universe got its start, but it’s far from the only one (what, the Big Bang Theory?  That one was completely useless from the start; it never even had a bang to it, and if something doesn’t get blown up, it’s generally no good).  This new theory postulates that the Universe is actually the three dimensional brane of a four dimensional black hole.  (Yes, this does involve explosions.  How do you think black holes form?)

Confused yet?  So was I, to begin with (I still am, to some extent).  Therefore, I will now do my best to explain the different elements of this theory.

First and most confusing, we have branes.  If you ask me, these are some of the most confusing structures described by Quantum physics.  I envision them as this sort of like a rippling curtain-y thing, for the most part.  Usually, they are two-dimensional structures, though they can be any number of dimensions, theoretically speaking.  I’m afraid I’m not really able to give a better description of these things; many of the theories are actually mutually exclusive, and we don’t actually have any physical confirmation of their existence.

Next, we have black holes.  Most people have some knowledge, at least of a black hole, so I’ll just summarize briefly before launching into the part that is different for this theory.  Basically, a black hole is the mass of an object (usually a star of some sort), compressed to a single point, known as a singularity.  This point, is, therefore, extremely dense, and thus emits a very powerful gravitational field.  Once you pass a certain point, called the event horizon, the gravitational pull is so powerful that even light isn’t fast enough to flee from that hungry maw.  There are a lot of theories out there for what happens to matter when it falls into a black hole, and what exactly the event horizon is.  According to this theory, the event horizon of a conventional (that is, a three-dimensional black hole that you’d find having a grand old time grazing its way through a local star cluster) black hole is actually a brane possessing of one few dimensions than the black hole itself (thus, a three-dimensional black hole would have a two-dimensional brane, which actually makes sense).

This theory then proposes that dimensions are very different from the current theory, which says that the extra dimensions of the universe (that is, all the space dimensions beyond three), are curled up on the edges of the perceivable dimensions.  Instead, it basically says that each lower dimension is inside of a higher one.  What this implies for the highest dimension, or whether it means that there are infinitely many dimensions, the article did not say.    What it does say is that each Universe possessing of x number of dimensions is the brane of a black hole in a universe possessing of x+1 dimensions.

Now, if you ask me, that was very confusing indeed.  It sounds to me like this is one of those theories that will probably never be provable, except by process of elimination.  We’ll just have to keep on looking back in time with really amazing telescopes.  Speaking of amazing telescopes, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite has released another updated map of the CMB.  Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Curiosity, Mars, six new scientific studies…and ET dirt

Six new scientific papers have just come out this past week, containing analyses of some of the most important discoveries that Curiosity has made thus far in its mission, all of them with the potential to change the way we understand the solar system.  Many of them hold information that could be essential to any future manned missions to Mars, and all of them are about something that everyone always thinks of first when it comes to extra-planetary exploration; dirt!

It turns out that our near celestial neighbor has some very interesting dirt.  We’ve found significant amounts of water in that rusty soil (which is technically sand, since soil/dirt implies the presence of organic matter, technically speaking, but for the sake of simplicity, I shall continue to call it dirt), which could be essential to future missions.  We’ve also found significant amounts of poisonous gases in the Martian sands, which could be essential for future missions to avoid.  We’ve also found a rock named Jake_M, which apparently is nearly indistinguishable from earthly versions of that rock.  Yes, we’ve named a single, small rock on the 4th planet (which, according to this link, is in the ocean off the coast of Australia) from the sun.  (Hurrah for space exploration!)  As if all this dirt didn’t already have you more excited than you could possibly bear, Curiosity has also analyzed two whole different types of soil, a crystalline/non-crystalline one and a type of sand that was exposed to some exciting conditions – slightly less wind.  The non-crystalline version of the first is apparently very similar to soil found on Hawaii.  (And if you ask the ancient astronaut theorists, I’m sure they would tell you that’s because the Martians made Hawaii.  That’s why they’re more often referred to as paranoid crazy people.)

Finally, the Final Frontier

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the world of space.  Voyager 1 entered interstellar space at last, after more than 30 years of travel.  It’s now more than 12 billion miles away from earth, and continuing to hurdle onward into the vast reaches of the Universe.  It will probably reach its first star in about 40,000 years.  24 new planets were discovered by the Kepler spacecraft, several of them only a fraction again as large as massive as earth.  The second commercial company to run a resupply to ISS was launched successfully (and spectacularly) from Wallops Island.  A group of eight people in Japan with two laptops between them launched a home-made space telescope successfully with professional capabilities, potentially revolutionizing satellite launch systems, a device was developed that converts sunlight into hydrogen fuel, and a really funky new material that heals itself was discovered.  Then, on top of all that, it’s officially Aerospace Week this week.

What is the most exciting of these?  I have to say Voyager’s crossing-over was the most monumental.  It’s the first man-made object to leave the solar system, which is positively amazing!  Though, admittedly, self-healing materials are pretty cool.  They’re also very useful for spacesuits – if your spacesuit heals itself, you don’t have to worry quite as much about tearing it, which would normally be a slightly more problematic situation.

So, really, it’s time to go out and throw a really big party with all your closest friends, where you can swap bad space jokes, eat food just like anyone else would, and watch Star Trek marathons.

For more details on these, see the following links:

In Japan, Eight
People With Two Laptops Launch A Telescope Into Orbit

A Device That
Converts Sunlight Into Hydrogen Fuel

Watch This
Weird, Gelatinous Material Heal Itself


Top Carnivores are Always Inefficient

Anyone who makes a minor hobby (or an in-depth study) of paleontology, zoology, or biology will quickly realize that carnivores are not nearly as efficient as herbivores.  It’s a basic principle of living organisms and ecosystems that most people learn in school.  (And if you learn it in school, it must be a really basic and really old one, too).

Apparently, astronomers are going to have to start paying a little more attention to biology.  It turns out that black holes, the voracious carnivores of the Cosmos, are terribly messy eaters, spilling their massive meals of, frankly, anything and everything, all over the place.  99% of each meal ends up as crumbs on the space-time carpeting, according to recent observations by the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  To put it in perspective, that would be like if you were to only eat the bread crumbs from a chicken stuffed crescent roll (which would be very foolish indeed, because their quite delicious).

What does this mean for our understanding of the Universe?  Basically, it gives us a better idea of what happens when matter gets too close to a black hole.  This doesn’t really change anything about black holes themselves, just the way matter interacts with them.  In essence, it’s a whole lot harder to hit a singularity when you’re moving at nearly the speed of light than we anticipated.

Perhaps black holes should switch to an herbivorous diet.