Friday, March 29, 2013

The Continuing Adventures of Li'l Kim

Things are definitely heating up on the Korean peninsula. North Korea has recently declared the 1953 armistice invalid, not that they ever paid much attention to its provisions anyway. And now, in response to a joint training exercise held by the U.S. and South Korea, they've released their master plan for bringing the United States to its knees. Their target list: Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Austin.

... say what? Austin?

Mind you, the odds of a North Korean missile reaching Austin, Texas are the same as the number of Rs in "Fat Chance", but still. The targeting order raises several very important questions. Who drew up this target list? What was he smoking? And did he bring enough to share?

While it's almost definitely true that Mr. Kim is nuttier than a short ton of Almond Joy, we do have to remember Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that all politics is local before we can make heads or tails of what the Crazy Hermit Kingdom is up to. It's important to keep in mind that Mr. Kim is still very new in the saddle, and doesn't yet have a really secure power base, if he's truly in charge to begin with. We don't actually know if he's wielding actual executive authority, or if he's some general's convenient figurehead. And this may be an effort to manufacture an external enemy to rally the people around his (mis)rule. While all this is true -- and this article is well worth a read for more insights -- it's also important to think over this rather startling target list.

I can kind of understand hitting Washington, although that won't actually degrade our command and control ability all that much. I'm not denigrating the usefulness of our political class (much), it's just that all the important command and control functions have fully-functional duplicates stood up somewhere else, just in case of such an emergency. And it kind of makes sense that Hawaii, as Pacific fleet HQ, is on the list. But Austin? I mean, it's the capital of Texas and all, but there's nothing in Austin that will paralyze the nation if we lost it. It doesn't even make bad sense. Granted, Austin was on the Soviet strike list, back in the day; but the Soviets were throwing 10,000 warheads in our general direction. With that many buckets of sunshine coming our way, Austin was bound to catch one. This list bespeaks a military command structure with no tangible basis in reality.

The truly scary thing here is that we're dealing with an entire government that matches the clinical definition for paranoid schizophrenia. And how in the world do you negotiate with someone like that?

We could negotiate with the Soviets, because at the end of the day, we both lived in the same objectively recognizable Universe. The same holds with the Chinese today. And with the Cubans, although they're not exactly high up on our priority list just right now. But, North Korea?

When we ask for talks with Mr. Kim, we may as well ask for the King of the Potato People to mediate.

The best thing we can hope for at this point is that Mr. Kim can consolidate his hold on power without provoking open war. But there's damned little margin for error. If the reins slip from Mr. Kim's pudgy fingers...

There's no way that ends well.

Friday, March 22, 2013

How Old Is It?

Space ... it's big. Really big. And it's getting bigger all the time.

Case in point: recently, the American Geophysical Union reported that the Voyager 1 spacecraft had left the Solar System, based upon a press release from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Except, that's not quite what the JPL press release said. What JPL said was that Voyager had entered a new region of space, but hasn't quite left the Sun's influence yet. They're still waiting for the final sign, the direction of the magnetic field lines, to tell them that Voyager has crossed over into genuine interstellar space.

It won't be the first time we thought a spacecraft has left the Solar System. Back in 1983, Pioneer 10 crossed the orbit of Neptune, at that time the most distant planet from the Sun. Back then, the common thought was that that was the border. But the more we learn, the farther back the border is pushed.

(Incidentally, Neptune is once again the most distant planet from the Sun, now that Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet. But that's neither here nor there ... except that asking whether or not Pluto should be a planet is still a good question for starting a bench-clearing brawl at an astronomical conference.)

Likewise, the Universe itself gets bigger and older every time we look at it.

NASA and the European Space Agency have released the latest results from the Planck Space Telescope, launched in May 2009. Its mission was to expand on the work already done by the earlier COBE and WMAP probes. Basically, what they're trying to do is to capture the Universe's very first light, or what's left of it. As the current theory holds, 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe cooled down enough to become transparent. That's as far back as we can see with any of our telescopes. COBE made the very first map of the microwave background radiation. It broadly confirmed the theory, but turned up some interesting results. To wit, the background radiation is lumpy, non-uniform. The patterns, if there were any, might yield some interesting clues as to the nature of the early Universe. So the WMAP mission was launched as a follow-up, with more sensitive instruments. WMAP was stunningly successful, and its map of the background radiation provided proof for the Lambda-CDM model of the early Universe. We still don't know what that "cold, dark matter" is, but the data provided by WMAP matches very closely with what's predicted by the theory. The Planck spacecraft was launched in 2009 to provide a more detailed data set, which was expected to refine our knowledge still further.

So far, Planck is delivering the goods.

The new map of the microwave background radiation is the most detailed yet, able to display structure and features no one imagined could be seen. For one, the data refines our estimate for the age of the Universe. The new estimate is about 100 million years older than we thought it was, or about 13.8 billion years old. Also, the Universe is not expanding quite as fast as we thought it was. There's less dark energy and more dark matter than we'd previously measured. (Not that we know what the Hell either one of those are, mind you.) But that's not even the most baffling bit.

This is.

Against all expectations, the Universe looks fundamentally different in one direction than it does in another. There's an enormous cold spot. If it's a genuine structure, and not an artifact of measurement, it's the biggest thing ever seen by humans. Some irregularities were visible on the WMAP data, causing Roger Penrose to hypothesize that those irregularities could be signs of a previous Universe, "echoes" of the last Big Crunch.

They said Penrose was mad. Maybe they were wrong?

We don't know yet. It's going to take a long time to digest just what all this means. No current theory accounts for the Cold Spot. Which means someone is going to have to cook up a new one that will. That won't happen tomorrow, or next week, or maybe even next year. But it will, and it'll be fascinating to find out what the implications are.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LIX

A while back, a friend sent me a link to a really great video recap of the MER-A rover, Spirit, and its journey to Mars. It's exceptionally well-made, and covers all the fiddly bits they had to get right before they could go for a drive.

Now, you may ask why they didn't do it that way for the new rover, Curiosity. There were a number of reasons, most of them dealing with the fact that Curiosity weighs just under a ton. Getting a ton of moving parts to Mars in one piece was ... interesting.

Sadly, Spirit got stuck in 2010, and hasn't been heard from since. But its twin, Opportunity, is still in working order, and still returning useful data. The original two rovers had been planned to last for a 90-day mission. So far, Opportunity has lasted 35 times longer than that. With that track record, it's a good bet that Curiosity should last long enough to exhaust its RTG power supply, giving us pictures and data from the Martian surface for years to come.

UPDATE: This last week, NASA announced that while they haven't found life on Mars yet, they have found that once upon a time, Mars had all the right conditions. Not only that, this proves that all the essential materials are still there.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Far-Out Honeymoon

Earlier today, the second regularly-scheduled Dragon cargo delivery mission blasted off from Florida. Everything went normally, right up to just after the Dragon spacecraft separated from the second stage.

I cocked an eyebrow when I heard "abort passive" on the flight controller loop, because that couldn't have meant anything good. And it didn't: it meant that they were having trouble bringing the maneuvering thrusters on-line. Not permanent trouble, fortunately; they got things ironed out after a few hours. They got the solar panels deployed, and are on course for rendezvous on Sunday, only a day later than originally planned.

Which once again goes to show that this is a damned complicated business. You've got about a bazillion moving parts, just about every one of which has to work, or you're out of luck.

I say this just to introduce the weirdest idea I've heard of in quite some time: a proposal by Dennis Tito to send a married couple on a trip to Mars and back, leaving in 2018. I'm trying to decide if it's utterly insane or not.

It's possible, even if only just barely so. The proposed Falcon Heavy booster could put a Dragon spacecraft, a crew of two, and an inflatable habitat on an Earth-escape trajectory. And the math works out for the trajectory. As long as you get your trans-Mars burn done just right, you'll hit that sweet spot behind Mars that will swing you right back towards Earth. So yeah, the tools are there...

...except that we're still not entirely sure that we can keep two people alive, healthy, and sane for the 501 days it would take to get them back to Earth. It probably bears mentioning that once you've cast your Earth-escape stage away, you're committed for the whole trip. There's no way to abort if something goes wrong. It also bears mentioning that the longest single mission to date has only been 437 days and change. We can be fairly sure that the crew will survive microgravity for that long. We're far less sure about solar flares, or cosmic rays.

But how else are we going to know if people can survive deep space, unless we try? Ultimately, that's what makes this worth trying. Yes, there's a risk that we won't get them back. They're perfectly aware of that. This project will have plenty of volunteers, even so. The chance to be one of the two fastest humans alive, the chance to be the first to Mars, there are many who will consider that a prize worth the risk.

I won't be one of them. First, being cooped up for that long in a Kevlar balloon would drive me nuts. And second, your close-up view of Mars? It's going to be pitch-black. You'll see the sunlit side on your way in, and on your way out, but your flyby will be in total darkness.

Still, it may be worth a try, if they can raise the cash to make it happen.