Monday, January 05, 2015

Fifteen for '15

It's one of those funny things that you really can't seem to quantify or prove, but nevertheless that everyone seems to agree upon: the older you get, the shorter a year gets. No one knows why. But everyone I've ever talked to about it agrees that it's so.

Anyway -- here we are, again. Another new year. Another old one gone to the discard pile. Except that it doesn't really feel all that new. That's something else that happens as you get older. I remember there used to be a magical feeling about approaching midnight on New Year's Eve. Like there was something special about the numbers rolling over to zero. That vanished for me somewhere between thirty-five and forty-five, not entirely sure where.

Having a teenager might have had something to do with it. That'll drive you to cynicism, alcoholism, or (often) both.

But I'm here to tell you, it gets better. They do grow up. They even -- Deo Gratia -- become rational adults.

And so, without further ado, fifteen observations for 2015.

ONE -- I'm going to be doubting the wisdom of this motif come 2020 or thereabouts. Maybe even sooner.

TWO -- Henceforth, I will be referring to Kim Jong-Un as The Great Hambino. When his government stops acting like a hobo on crank, he can have his name back.

THREE -- Big year ahead in spaceflight. For me, the highlight will probably be New Horizon's Pluto/Charon encounter in July. They've woken the ship up from the eight-year hibernation it's been in since the Jupiter fly-by in 2007, and the team is getting ready to begin its science mission in February. This is an encounter that means a lot for those of us who grew up when Pluto was the ninth planet, and to date the only one we haven't seen close up. That ends in July.

FOUR -- But wait, there's more! Dawn will be entering orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres in March, having left Vesta in September of 2012. Despite having been launched a year later than New Horizons, Dawn will end up being the first spacecraft to have a close encounter with a dwarf planet. On the other hand, Ceres may not be as interesting as Pluto ... but then again, it might. We don't know ahead of time what we'll find, which is part of what makes the trip worthwhile.

FIVE -- While the Dragon 2.0 won't fly this year, tomorrow morning we'll get to find out if they can land a Falcon first stage on an autonomous ocean barge or not. SpaceX is saying they have a 50-50 shot of this thing working right the first time. But I sure wouldn't put money on them not being able to figure it out within a flight or two. Once they work the bugs out, this will allow SpaceX to recover, refurbish, and re-use an enormous chunk of flight hardware that everyone else just throws away. Good news for SpaceX, as well as its shareholders and customers; mildly worrisome for everyone else in the business.

SIX -- It will be a while before anything is known for sure, but my guess is that Scaled Composites will identify what went wrong with VSS Enterprise, fix it, and be ready to go back into test by the end of the year. But that depends on a number of things -- the final NTSB report and whether or not Richard Branson wants to press ahead being the two most important ones.

SEVEN -- And last but not least, the planet-hunter Kepler isn't down for the count, after all. They've managed to work out a mode of operation that will allow some observations to go forward, even with its reduced capability. It may be several years before my #4 observation from last year comes to fruition -- that'll probably require much more capable sensors than we currently have -- but I'm still optimistic we'll find a habitable world Out There fairly soon.

EIGHT -- Nothing new to report on the fusion energy front ... yet. But keep an eye on this. The fact that a company as big as Lockheed has laid its name and reputation on the line tells me that they've got a solid path forward. The odds are that we won't hear anything new until it's demonstration time. This points back to items #5 through #7 from last year, and I'll say it again: while concern is warranted about our power future, panic isn't. More and more, it's looking like we'll have the tools we need when we need them.

NINE -- This is a partial call-back to #5 above ... but I just wanted to point out how far 3-D printing has come. The thrusters they're going to use both for contingency aborts and precision landings? Made by 3-D printing, with metal. Not plastic, metal. Also, a 3-D printer has been delivered to the International Space Station. I wasn't aware that was even possible. Early 3-D printing technology required gravity in order to do its thing. Apparently, they've figured out a way around that. Interestingly enough, the first thing they made with their new 3-D printer was a part for the printer ... which tells me we're that much closer to being able to build a machine that can rebuild itself. Cool, and scary, all at the same time.

TEN -- Please, merciful God, spare us Clinton vs. Bush in 2016. Surely there are other candidates. But I fear that may be how the primaries shake out.

ELEVEN -- What a difference a year makes. Several years of 8-8 futility, and all of a sudden the Cowboys turn into an unstoppable-on-the-road juggernaut. Which sets up an interesting situation this coming Sunday in Green Bay -- the irresistible force meets the immovable object. The Cowboys are undefeated on the road. The Packers are undefeated at home. One of those streaks ends on Sunday.

TWELVE -- Somewhat related: is anyone out there still questioning the wisdom of drafting Zack Martin instead of Johnny Manziel? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

THIRTEEN -- While the lower gas prices are nice, something's going on behind the scenes that no one's quite figured out yet. We know that Saudi Arabia spun their taps wide open, what we don't know is why. There are a few possibilities, ranging from the highly likely to the improbable. Increasing the supply drops the price, that's obvious. Question is, who benefits? And who's hurt? Is this intended to put some hurt on the Iranians? Maybe, and a weakened Iran would be a good thing for the Saudis. Do they want to put a squeeze on the Russians? Maybe, insofar as they've provided Iran with backing. Do they want to drive prices low enough to put the resurgent American oil industry in a bind? I tend to think that's an unintended consequence, but I'm just guessing. Low prices put advanced recovery techniques, such as fracking and tar sands, at an unfavorable place on the price curve. But if they see that as such a threat, then ... maybe they're drawing down low enough that it's "smoke 'em while you got 'em" time. But if their reserves were getting that low, the smart play would be to lean it out as long as possible, wouldn't it? In any case, this bears close attention, and you should probably keep an eye on it.

FOURTEEN -- When Autocorrect gets good enough to make this site obsolete, then it's time to worry about Artificial Intelligence.

FIFTEEN -- (Added 11Jan15) Yep. Definitely regretting this motif.

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