Friday, January 24, 2014

Ten Years!

Ten years ago, the rover Opportunity landed on the surface of Mars. It was expected to last at least 90 Martian days. At this point, it's lasted about forty times that long, and looks to be good for still more.

In the ten years Opportunity has been on station, we've gathered an immense amount of data, and made several amazing discoveries. Some of them have been confirmations of things long suspected, others took us by surprise. Ten years ago, it was still an open question whether or not water had ever flowed on Mars; now, it's proven fact. Ten years ago, it was highly speculative to say that Mars ever had the necessary conditions for life. Now, while it's not proven for sure yet, the facts are lining up in favor. Between them, Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity have been chipping away at the unknowns, revealing a world more complex that we'd imagined, with a richer past than we'd suspected.

In other recent news, we turn our eyes outward to the Asteroid Belt. European scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered something surprising about the dwarf planet Ceres. It seems that it periodically ejects plumes of water. While we'd suspected that Ceres was at least partially made of ice, this provides confirmation. Fortunately for us, the Dawn spacecraft is already on its way, having left Vesta a while back.

You know, this makes me feel sorry for poor New Horizons.

When New Horizons launched, it was a mission to fly by the farthest known planet, Pluto. While enroute, Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet. Which was still OK, since New Horizons would still be the first mission to a dwarf planet, right? Um, no. Turns out that while New Horizons will fly by Pluto in July of 2015, Dawn will reach Ceres in January.

Some people just can't buy a break.

Anyway, it's wonderful to know that we can still build things that last. Voyager, launched way back in 1977, still checks in regularly with Earth. Opportunity still soldiers on after ten years driving around in the Martian dust. And just next year, we'll get our first close-up views of not one, but two dwarf planets.

These are great days, ladies and gentlemen. And we've barely begun.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Fourteen for '14

Once again, we've broken the shrink-wrap on a brand-new calendar. We've seen off a grizzled old Father Time to a well-earned retirement, and welcomed in a smiling Baby New Year -- who, clearly, had no clue what he's in for. But he'll learn soon enough. Probably by, say, noon two days ago. And with that, we'll dive right into fourteen not-so-random thoughts for the New Year.

One: Holy God, Mr. Kim's a bad-un. We knew he was crazy. What we didn't necessarily know until now is that the guy has one hell of a mean streak. We probably should have gotten a clue last year when he had someone executed by mortar -- yes, machine-gunning wasn't enough, they used artillery -- for failing to observe a decent period of mourning for his late father. Then, he had a former girlfriend executed. And late last year, we found out that he had his uncle executed as well, for an alleged putsch-in-progress. Well, now details have leaked about the method. Kim Jong-Un had him thrown in a cage with 120 starving hounds. Along with five of his top aides. It's ... less than encouraging, knowing that someone with these kinds of anger issues even has a nuclear button to push. It's a little more reassuring to know that he's still got a ways to go before they can air-mail a batch of instant sunrise to anyone outside of North Korea.

Two: Nut-cases like Li'l Kim are why theater missile defense is still a damn good idea.

Three: I'm provisionally going to call Number Four from last year proven. The key wording here is, "for a sufficiently generous definition of Earth-like." The closest thing to an Earth-like planet found so far, GJ 1214b, is a lava planet with an atmosphere containing zinc sulfide, postassium chloride ... and water. Still, the fact that we can actually sense its atmospheric composition from 33 light years away -- thirty-three light years! -- is phenomenal. Stupefying, even. On the plus side, Kepler-62e and -62f are about the right size, and about the right distance from their star ... but they're about 1,200 light years away, so it'll be a while before we have enough data to be sure. Again, wording is important: by the terms I laid out last year, that's close enough.

Four: Now, to raise the stakes: We'll find a true Earth-twin, and soon. Right size, right place in its solar system, right atmospheric composition, and yes, oceans of liquid water. Our instruments get better every year. I don't seriously expect it to happen this year ... but I didn't expect Number Four from last year to be proven out so soon, either.

Five: Research at the University of Twente has revealed a new way to wind superconducting cables that will vastly extend their productive life within a fusion reactor. You can read the whole paper here. Solid information about other ongoing projects is still kind of hard to come by. Since the Polywell project is run by the Navy, and the Navy is playing its cards close to the vest, we won't know more until they decide to exercise a contract option to continue the research. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on. Fusion's been a tough nut to crack. But if we can figure it out, our energy problems are just about over.

Six: One researcher, Joe Eck, has produced a superconductor that keeps its superconducting properties up to a temperature of 38C, or about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Soon, they'll be pushing Tc up to values that will be useful for long-distance high-voltage power lines. Provided, that is, that the material is amenable to use in that capacity. The obvious advantages of superconducting power lines will lead someone to take up that challenge. As I've written before, we lose about two-thirds of the power we generate between the power plant and the end user. Meaning that, if we had superconducting power lines, at a stroke we'd triple the amount of deliverable electrical power. When I first started writing about this, it was a highly speculative prospect. Now, it's just a matter of time.

Seven: The three items above, together, lead me to the conclusion that while concern about our power future is still warranted, panic isn't. Relax, guys. We've got this.

Eight: VSS Enterprise, the successor to SpaceShip One that Burt Rutan is building for Richard Branson, made two powered flights last year, both going supersonic. On the second test flight in September, they tested the "feathering" that they will use for deceleration and descent from flights above 100km altitude. About 370 people have put a deposit down on their ticket, and 80,000 more are on the waiting list. No, I'm not one of them -- the quarter-million-dollar ticket price is too rich for my blood. Besides, the price is bound to come down sooner or later. The reason I'm writing all this is simple: after a few test flights to expand the flight envelope, I expect them to go for broke this year, all the way up to the Big Black. A steady stream of paying customers will follow, and the REAL Space Age will be well underway.

Nine: Meanwhile, Elon Musk looks on and says, "Suborbital? That's cute." DragonRider has passed its initial design reviews with NASA. SpaceX has announced a target price of $140 million, or $20 million per seat if all seven seats are used. So far, SpaceX hasn't announced any space tourist initiatives yet. Their primary customer for DragonRider is NASA, aiming to muscle Soyuz out of the crew rotation business. But the implication is obvious. If Branson proves that a market's there, someone will put two and two together, and pick up a phone to give Mr. Musk a call. It's only a matter of time, now.

Ten: The first astronaut of NASA's Group 20, Michael Hopkins, is aboard the International Space Station, and will be until March 2014. I find it remarkable that it only took two years after completion of training for the first member of Group 20 to get a flight. Then again, it has been four years since selection... Amazingly enough, there was a selection for Group 21, and it completely escaped my notice. The eight astronaut candidates selected in June will join the 47 astronauts currently on the active list. It looks like they're on a four-year rotation now, so we should look for Group 22 to be chosen in June 2017.

Eleven: Total radio silence so far on Johan Bruyneel's arbitration hearing, in the wake of last year's Armstrong scandal. Although, really, it's not fair to call it the Armstrong scandal, since Lance wasn't doing anything anyone else wasn't already doing. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way by (a) turning all the dials up to 11, and (b) being a total jerk-ass about it. Everybody and his dog was cheating during those years. Mind you, he richly deserved to lose those titles, and no one else really deserved to pick them up. Still, once the decision is released, I expect the other shoe to drop. We know who, what, when, where, and why; we do not know how. How was he able to avoid the testing protocols so long and so well? And how far did the corruption go? We'll probably learn more in the year to come.

Twelve: It'll be interesting to see how well Lolo Jones does in bobsled. Bobsled and luge are my two favorite winter sports. But as you might have noticed, I have a thing for speed, and these are just about the two fastest muscle-powered sports there are.

Thirteen: Another season, another 8-8 finish for the Cowboys. I can haz new GM? Yeah, like Jerry's gonna fire himself. Maybe next year ... but probably not.

Fourteen: But wait! The primaries are coming up for the 2014 Texas Gubernatorial election! So far, the only entrants I've heard of are Wendy Davis on the Democratic side, and Greg Abbott for the Republicans. Presumably, there's going to be some competition, but my gut feeling right now is that it'll be Abbot vs. Davis in November. I'll dig into more detail on that in coming weeks, but this could be a fun one. Also -- looks like Governor Perry's ginning up for another run at the Republican nomination in 2016. No, don't laugh. His performance last time was an aberration. If he manages to show up properly prepped and briefed, he could spring an unpleasant surprise on his competitors.

And that's it for now. Happy New Year, all! And thanks for reading.