Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

ISS’s life expectancy

Engineers are reviewing the life expectancy of the International Space Station, in light of the desire of politicians to keep it operating through the 2020s. Intriguing quote:

Airlines and airplane contractors commonly inspect aircraft for such fractures, but with the space station out of reach more than 200 miles up, engineers rely on complex models to predict their growth in orbit.

Our Debt Is More Than All the Money in the World

There is a lobbying push among a lot of space activists to get the House NASA authorization bill changed so that more money is spent for commercial space. Unfortunately for these activists, reality is about to strike (almost certainly on November 2). Also see this story: Our debt is more than all the money in the world.

With a new Congress almost certainly dominated by individuals who want to shrink the size of government, I doubt anyone in the space industry is going to get much of what they want in the coming years.

The variability of stars according to Kepler

More data from Kepler! In a paper [pdf] published today on the astro-ph website, scientists outline Kepler’s census of the variability of stars. Key quote from the abstract:

We have separated the sample in 129,000 dwarfs and 17,000 giants, and further sub-divided, the luminosity classes into temperature bins corresponding approximately to the spectral classes A, F, G, K, and M. G-dwarfs are found to be the most stable with < 20% being variable. The variability fraction increases to 30% for the K dwarfs, 40% for the M and F dwarfs, and 70% for the A-dwarfs. At the precision of Kepler, > 95% of K and G giants are variable.

Amateur detection of Jupiter impact

The detection in June by two different amateur astronomers of an impact on Jupiter bodes well for asteroid/comet research. You can read the actual paper here. [pdf] Key quote from the abstract:

A systematic study of the impact rate and size of these bolides can enable an empirical determination of the flux of meteoroids in Jupiter with implications for the populations of small bodies in the outer Solar System and may allow a better quantification of the threat of impacting bodies to Earth. The serendipitous recording of this optical flash opens a new window in the observation of Jupiter with small telescopes.

John Wilcox dies

Updated and bumped: John’s obituary can now be read here.

John Wilcox, the man most responsible for finding the connection between Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and the Flint Ridge Cave system and thereby producing the world’s longest cave system, died today after a three week long illness. To quote Roger Brucker, co-author of The Longest Cave, Wilcox “was known for his systematic approach to exploration and laser-like focus on detailed mapping.” R.I.P.

Philadelphia police steal citizens’ guns

Two stories from the so-called “city of brotherly love”:

First, a woman whose son was murdered decided she needed to protect herself. She legally obtained a concealed carry permit and purchased a gun, only to have the police come to her home, arrest her, and confiscate it. Key quote:

“I thought they were coming to my door to tell me they had my son’s murderer,” [the woman] said. “But they were coming to take me and my gun, and now I’m defenseless.”

In the second story, it appears that Philadelphia police are making a policy to arrest security guards and confiscate their guns, even though the guns were lawfully obtained and legally permitted. At least nine different security guards have experienced this form of Philadelphia thuggery. Key quote from Lieutenant Fran Healy, special adviser to the police commissioner:

“Officers’ safety comes first, and not infringing on people’s rights comes second.”

By the way, Philadelphia is the same city that now wants to charge a $300 business license for anyone writing a blog, regardless of whether they are running a business or hobby, and thus effectively stifling free speech.

As imagined by SF authors: the Celestial Spiral

This amazing Hubble image, showing a strange spiral to the left of the bright star, is not of a galaxy. Instead, it is a binary star system where the material from one star is being sucked away from it by the other, thus producing the spiral pattern.

celestial spiral

What is most fascinating about this discovery is that this kind of phenomenon has been predicted for decades, by both astronomers and science fiction writers. Consider for example this quote from Larry Niven from his short story, The Soft Weapon, where he describes what he thinks the binary star Beta Lyrae might look like:

There was smoke across the sky, a trail of red smoke wound in a tight spiral coil. At the center of the coil was the source of the fire: a double star. One member was violet-white, a flame to brand holes in a human retina, its force held in check by the polarized window. The companion was small and yellow. They seemed to burn inches apart, so close that their masses had pulled them both into flattened eggs, so close that a red belt of lesser flame looped around them to link their bulging equators togehter. The belt was hydrogen, still mating in fusion fire, pulled loose from the stellar surfaces by two gravitional wells in conflict.

The gravity did more than that. It sent a loose end of the red belt flailing away, away and out in a burning Maypole spiral that expanded and dimmed as it rose toward interstellar space, until it turned from flame-red to smoke-red, bracketing the sky and painting a spiral path of stars deep red across half the universe.

A question for the baby boomers

If you are a baby boomer who grew up in the 1960s, such as myself, there are some very safe assumptions that anyone can make about your history and political views, both during the 1960s and the decades that followed.

For example, in the 1960s you were almost certainly against the Vietnam War. You were also likely to oppose President Lyndon Johnson and his Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. You cheered Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign for President, and you probably also despised President Nixon and passionately wished that George McGovern had won the 1972 Presidential campaign.

Almost certainly you participated in some anti-war protests somewhere during the 1960s. Some of you were in Chicago for the protests during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, while others were likely to have participated in the numerous university sit-ins that were rampant throughout the country in the late 1960s.

Sadly, many of you at that time would have probably considered the police “pigs” and the military “evil” (even if those insults seem totally unfair, disgusting, and almost unforgivable to you now).

On a personal level, you probably experimented with drugs, had fun with rock ‘n roll, and even more fun with sex. Many of you also probably participated in the hippie culture at events like Woodstock and places like San Francisco and the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.

Above all, you abhorred authority. You were raised to be very independent-minded and » Read more

Danish cartoonist honored

Profile in courage: Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was given an award in Germany yesterday at a freedom of the press conference. Key quote:

“It does not matter if we think his cartoons are tasteful or not, if we think they are necessary and helping or not,” [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel said at the ceremony in the city of Potsdam. The question, she said, was, “Is he allowed to do this? Yes, he is.”

Westergaard’s drawing is below. Though it might offend some, the drawing of a cartoon is never justification for violence. That so many Muslims seem to think their religion justifies such violence, however, tells us a great deal about the nature of that religion.


Campus administrator shuts down conservative group

Freedom of speech alert: Despite having gotten permission to be there, campus officials ejected students and members of the Young American’s for Freedom from the Palm Beach State College campus during club rush, apparantly because the officials disagreed with the students’ literature. Key quote:

On the day of club rush, officials approached the group and after seeing information about the organization and its ideals criticizing Barack Obama’s economic policy, Ms. Ford-Morris was visibly disturbed by the material presented, published by the Heritage Foundation, criticizing President Obama’s administration. College officials then called the campus police to assure the group left campus. Ms. Ford-Morris denied having ever talked to Ms. Beattie about giving permission to the organization to be a part of PBSC club rush.

Update: The name for Young American’s for Freedom has been corrected. Thank you, readers!

Opportunity’s journey continues

On August 18, 2010, the Mars rover Opportunity took this panorama image of the Martian terrain. Up close, patches of bedrock can be seen where the sand had blown clear. In the far distance the rim of Endeavour Crater, the rover’s long term destination, pokes up over the horizon.

Endeavour Crater on the horizon

Update: A press notice from JPL today notes that Opportunity has now traveled about half of the 11.8 mile distance to Endeavour Crater. As it took two years to go this far, the journey still has two years to go, assuming the rover survives that long.

The September monthly sunspot graph

The Sun continues to show a reluctance to come out of its solar minimum. Today NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center published its monthly graph, showing the sun’s developing sunspot cycle in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009. As you can see below, actual sunspot activity remains far below what was predicted by the red line.

September 7, 2010 Solar Cycle progression

As I noted when I posted the July and August graphs, the Sun’s ramp up to solar maximum continues to be far slower and weaker than predicted. After two hundred years of watching a vibrant and strong solar cycle, it appears increasingly likely that we are heading towards some quiet time on the Sun.

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