Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Mainstream media outlet notices possible news!

Last week President Obama signed the revisions to the Commercial Act that is being touted as allowing Americans property rights in space.

I have been following the news coverage of this event, and even though there have been many articles incorrectly pushing the above spin, only today was there a news story that finally noticed that these touted property rights would violate the Outer Space treaty.

The content of the second link above, though it notices the possible violations to the Outer Space treaty, is also still a pitiful example of journalism. It is very clear from reading the article that no one involved in writing it (the article’s byline is CBC News) ever read the newly passed law. I have, and found that nowhere in it does it actually grant Americans property rights in space. What it does do is demand that the executive branch support that idea and write a number of reports and studies to demonstrate that support.

The goal I think of this new law is to begin the political process towards the U.S. eventually pulling out of the Outer Space treaty. Congress is essentially stating that it doesn’t agree with the language of that United Nations treaty, and it wants the U.S. government to begin the process of either getting it changed, or preparing to pull out. (The treaty does provide language allowing nations to pull out. You give one year’s notice, and then do so.)

It would be nice if journalists who write about this subject did the simple and easy research necessary for reporting it intelligently.

Until they do, however, I guess people will just have to come here (written with a grin).


A developing new astronomical mystery

Radio astronomers in Australia have recently detected a number of new mysterious radio bursts, dubbed fast radio bursts because of their nature, coming from outside our galaxy whose cause presently has no clear explanation.

An unprecedented double burst recently showed up along with four more of these flashes, researchers report online November 25 at

Fast radio bursts, first detected in 2007, are bright blasts of radio energy that last for just a few milliseconds and are never seen again. Until now, astronomers had cataloged nine bursts that appeared to originate well outside the Milky Way. Yet, follow-up searches with nonradio telescopes for anything that might be pulsing or exploding keep coming up empty.

This mystery is similar to that of gamma ray bursts (GRBs), which were first discovered in the 1960s. About once a day there would be a short burst of gamma ray energy coming from scattered random directions in the sky, but no other radiation in any other wavelength. For decades astronomers didn’t know if the GRBs were coming from just outside our atmosphere or from billions of light years away. Finally, in the 1990s they pinned their location to the deaths of stars in distant other galaxies. As noted by one scientist at a conference, “GRBs signal the daily formation of a new black hole.”

Fast radio bursts are more intriguing. Because of their wavelengths and random locations on the sky, astronomers seem confident that they are occurring outside the Milky Way. However, in the eight years since their discovery only a handful have been detected, making it extremely difficult to study them. Nonetheless, they are significant because they signal some cataclysmic event far away, likely the death of a star in a way not yet understood or predicted. Finding out what that event is will produce important information about the evolution of our universe.

It just might take decades for this new mystery to be solved. Stay tuned!

Blue Origin lands first stage rocket vertically

The competition heats up: Yesterday Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin did its second test flight of its New Shepard suborbital rocket and capsule, and successfully recovered the rocket’s first stage, landing the stage vertically using its rockets.

As Jeff Bezos wrote at the link:

Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket.

This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design. Our unique ring fin shifted the center of pressure aft to help control reentry and descent; eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle’s terminal speed to 387 mph; hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet above the landing pad; then the highly-throttleable BE-3 engine re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 mph to touchdown on the pad.

When you watch the video you’ll see that we took the liberty of engineering all the drama out of the landing.

I have posted video of the flight below the fold.

SpaceX has been attempting this with its orbital Falcon 9 rocket for the last two years. They have come very close, hitting their target and almost landing. They plan to try again in December. Blue Origin however has beaten them to it, even if they have done it with a suborbital rocket.This demonstrates unequivocally that the concept is sound and that a rocket’s first stage can be recovered. It also demonstrates that of all the rocket companies in the world, SpaceX and Blue Origin are in position to dominate for at least the next decade. I am very confident that SpaceX will succeed in its efforts to recover its first stage. I am also very confident that Blue Origin’s plans to upgrade New Shepard into an orbital rocket/capsule will proceed quickly.

In both cases, the companies will then move forward, capable of recovering and reusing significant parts of their rockets, thus making it possible to significantly lower the launch cost and thus charge their customers less. No one else is in this position, or even close to it. The launch market will belong to them.
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Trump’s real weakness

While Donald Trump has remained the leader in every poll for president since he entered the campaign, it still remains to be seen whether Republican voters will give him the nod when actual voting begins in the primaries. I have tended to believe that they will not, and I base this on Trump’s essential lack of understanding of the small government principles of conservatism. Though it is very clear that Trump has rejected the left and the big government ideas of the Democratic Party, it is also clear that he really doesn’t really believe in small government either. This story quoting a Trump speech from yesterday illustrates this very well:

Speaking during a town hall meeting in Iowa Thursday, Republican front-runner Donald Trump told the crowd the way to make college affordable for students is “to start some governmental program. … Well the only way you can do it is you have to start some governmental program and you have governmental programs right now,” Trump told the crowd.

Click on the link to read the whole quote, which also illustrates the generally incoherent way in which Trump speaks. His incoherency however, is not what hurts him here, but his easy acceptance of the idea that government is the solution.

Don’t get me wrong. Trump is by far a better candidate than any of the Democratic Party options, and he would do a far better job then them as well. His business experience in the real world will make him a better president, and is also likely the reason he now generally favors conservative solutions. Nonetheless, when voting time comes I think the Republican voters are going to move away from him.

The uncertainty of climate science

For the past five years, I have been noting on this webpage the large uncertainties that still exist in the field of climate science. Though we have solid evidence of an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we also have no idea what the consequences of that increase are going to be. It might cause the atmosphere to warm, or it might not. It might harm the environment, or it might instead spur plant life growth that will invigorate it instead. The data remains inconclusive. We really don’t even know if the climate is truly warming, and even if it is, whether CO2 is causing that warming.

While government scientists at NASA and NOAA are firmly in the camp that claims increasing carbon dioxide will cause worldwide disastrous global warming, their own data, when looked at coldly, reveals that they themselves don’t have sufficient information to make that claim. In fact, they don’t even have sufficient information to claim they know whether the climate is warming or cooling! My proof? Look at the graph below, produced by NOAA’s own National Centers for Environmental Information.
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Epic monuments and power

More Mexico City traffic

Being in Mexico on a sightseeing trip, it is of course necessary to visit some famous churches as well as some Aztec ruins. On Thursday we headed out to do both, though we first had to slowly work our way through Mexico City’s never-ending bumper-to-bumper traffic to get where we were going.

When we got there what struck me the most about the two different tourist sites we visited was how much they resembled each other, despite being separated by almost 1500 years and completely different cultures and religious beliefs.

The old Basilica

Our first stop was to see the Basilica of the Guadalupe, located in northern Mexico City. To understand the significance of this site it is important to know the background. According to the story, which is not documented in any writings by clergy at that time, in 1531 native Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary, speaking to him in his native Aztec tongue. In those visions she told him that a church should be built at a specific spot in her honor. Initially his vision was rejected by the clergy when he told them about it. When the Virgin Mary began to work miracles, however, including having her vision miraculously appear on the front of Diego’s cloak, they came to accept the visions and proceeded to build that church as requested. The result was the Basilica, where Diego’s cloak is still housed and is on display for all to see. Juan Diego himself was canonized as a saint in 2002, the Catholic Church’s first indigenous saint from the New World.

The significance of these events for the Catholic Church in Latin America is hard to measure.
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Crowded Mexico City and colonization of space

This week Diane and I are in Mexico with friends doing some sightseeing. As is my habit, I can’t just enjoy the sights I have to ask a lot of questions while trying to get an impression of the place, its culture, its environment, its atmosphere, and its politics. Not surprisingly, the answers to some of those questions pointed me upward beyond the surface of the Earth. To understand why, read on.

Today we toured the inner parts of Mexico City, both on foot and by bus and subway (or the Metro as they call it here). I have spent considerable time in many of the world’s major cities, growing up in New York and visiting at length Moscow, Kiev, Prague, London, Chicago, Los Angeles and others. Mexico City has many of the same features you’d expect for this kind of big city, lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of buildings packed tight together, and lots of wealth and poverty sitting side-by-side.

Mexico City traffic

Mexico City however to me seemed to be most crowded and the most packed of any city I have ever visited or lived in. Its size and population probably rivals that of the entire New York metropolitan area, but somehow the traffic and crowds and architecture seemed more piled on top of each other with far less breathing room.

First was the traffic. Everywhere we went it was wall to wall vehicles. The major highways were never quiet, even at night. Nor could I see much difference between midday and rush hours. The picture on the right shows us heading from in from an outer neighborhood where we were staying to take the subway into the center of the city. Not only was it bumper-to-bumper, but if you look out in the distance the road is bumper-to-bumper as far as the eye can see. My host Alfonso added at one point that in order to avoid this traffic many people routinely leave for work before 5 am and come home after 8 pm. Schools have multiple shifts, including ones at night.

A side note: The tall rectangular structures in the foreground are not buildings. This is a work of art, five several hundred foot tall cinderblock structures supposedly forming a hand pointing up, with the thicker yellow tower in the front representing the thumb.
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Pluto’s meandering canyons

canyons of Pluto

Cool image time! In scrolling through the new raw images downloaded from New Horizons today I came across an image, one of several, that showed what clearly appeared to be meandering canyons carved by flowing liquid.

To show it here, I have cropped it and reduced its size somewhat, highlighting the most interesting features. As you can see, the largest canyon not only appears to have a dark floor, it cuts right through an older crater. Smaller canyons do the same thing. In addition, many of the craters seem to be ponded with the same dark material that floors the canyons, while some of the smaller canyons show tributaries that come together, just like rivers. Are these flows of liquid nitrogen?

I eagerly await the conclusions of the scientists, who are probably only slightly less baffled by these features as I am.

Be sure and check out the full image, as well as the other raw images. The data continue to come in from New Horizons, but the science team is no longer under the same kind of public pressure to make announcements or hold press conferences. There are gems hidden there that are worth looking at, even if they are not as yet accompanied by any scientific analysis.

The coming dark ages

I decided today, after one of my readers, John Harman, sent me a link to a very blunt but accurate piece describing the sad state of modern American culture, that it was necessary to explain why I had posted nothing here on Behind the Black on Thursday, even though I was home all day doing what I usually do, scanning the web for interesting stuff.

To begin, you might want to read the essay that John sent me, entitled Wimp Nation: Poised to Fall. It sums up the cultural situation quite nicely.

The United States has become a nation of weak, pampered, easily frightened, helpless milquetoasts who have never caught a fish, fired a gun, chopped a log, hitchhiked across the country, or been in a schoolyard fight. If their cat dies, they call a grief therapist. Everything frightens Americans.

Read it all.

You then might want to read this story about Hillary Clinton’s testimony and questioning on Thursday in front of the House Benghazi committee. Here too the author captures the sick intellectually dishonest nature of America’s political culture.

What we discovered is this: The White House and Clinton apparently knew that the Benghazi attack was the premeditated work of Islamic terrorists before the bodies were cold. She and the administration nevertheless proceeded to propagate a falsehood that advanced the president’s preferred political narrative just six weeks before a tightly-contested national election.

As I noted to John, Hillary Clinton’s testimony wasn’t news, it was a joke. What did we learn? She is a liar? That’s news? What was worse, as the author of the article noted, were the reporters willing to make believe this wasn’t so.

Then there are these two stories:
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Solar ramp down jumps slightly

My original post about NOAA’s October update to its monthly tracking of the Sun’s sunspot cycle contained an incorrect graph. For reasons I do not understand, the first graph they posted did not include the data for September, thus creating for me the illusion that little had changed in September. I am now posting the correct graph here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

In September numbers showed a slight jump in sunspot activity, though once again nothing so significant as to change the overall trends. Moreover, the correction doesn’t change what I wrote previously in any way: the rate of decline seems to have transitioned down from the 2009 prediction (red curve) to the 2007 weak prediction (lower green curve). This doesn’t real mean much, as the sunspot number can still vary up and down considerable before we reach solar minimum in two or three years.

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Back from a weekend underground

Bob Zimmerman underground

The picture on the right will explain why I have been silent posting since Friday. I have just returned with five friends from three days of caving in New Mexico, doing some wild caving plus my first visit to Carlsbad Caverns since 1992, guided by a local caver who has been helping me with my cave survey project in Arizona.

New Mexico probably has the largest concentration of truly large and spectacularly decorated caves in the entire world. I’ve caved there previously, but this was my first trip driving from Arizona. We went to two wild caves, one of which I had never visited before and a second that I had seen during my 1992 trip. The picture shows me in the latter, standing above a large clear pool near the back of the cave with some giant flowstone speleothems all around me.

The new cave contained a room dubbed Speleogasm, because every formation there, of which there are too many to count, is completely festooned with helectites and sodastraws in a mad protrusion that no geologist can as yet explain. Nor is there any way to describe it adequately or photograph it successfully. To witness it you need to go, requiring the specialized caving skills that include the techniques and equipment required to rappel and climb a 40 foot rope.

As always, the advantages of learning how to do this successfully is the reward of seeing things that few ever see. It is why engineers and scientists strive so hard to get planetary probes to distant planets. And why humans want to travel to the planets. For me, getting inside a remote and beautifully decorated cave will just have to do.

How the Republican Party might break-up

Devin Nunes (R-California), a establishment Republican supporting Kevin McCarthy (R-California) for House Speaker, said today that any Republicans who don’t vote for McCarthy should be kicked out of the party.

Nunes is talking about the final House-wide vote for Speaker. First the Republicans vote in private among themselves, picking their nominee. McCarthy is expected to easily win that vote. Then the entire House votes. Some conservatives are threatening to not vote for McCarthy in that House-wide vote in order to extract greater influence over the entire party. Nunes wants them ejected from the party if they do that.

I have also read another story, the link to which I can’t find now, where establishment Republicans want to codify what Nunes is saying, so that any Republican who voted against McCarthy in the final vote would be kicked out of the party. If this happens, then we might very well see the Republican Party split, something that I increasingly see as a possibility. Right now the party is trying to be too big a tent, including conservatives and many moderate Democrats who find the modern Democratic Party unacceptable. (This is one reason why the Republican presidential field is so large.)

Should the party split, we might also eventually see the withering away of the Democratic Party, which today is very corrupt and far too leftwing for most Americans. If the Republicans split into conservative and moderate wings, many of those disenchanted Democrats would move to the moderate Republican faction. The result would be to cut off the corrupt modern Democratic Party from the reins of power.

I am of course being hopeful and naively optimistic. A more likely scenario would be for the Republican Party to split in such a way that the unified Democrats, still corrupt, would take over.

Guess where?

Pluto lake

I found the image on the right while trolling about on the various raw image sites for NASA’s planetary missions. No press release yet, and maybe there never will be one. I do know the scientists involved in this particular mission are right now drooling over the details available in the full resolution image, which I have cropped and reduced to fit on the right. Take a look and you will drool as well.

Want to know where this is? I bet you have already guessed, but if you need help, click on the “read more” link below, where I have also added some comments.
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Decline to solar minimum

Last week NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in August. As I have done every month since 2010, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

The sunspot count continued its decline, though dropping only a small amount. Regardless, the decline continues at a rate far faster than predicted or is usual during the ramp down from solar maximum. If this rate of decline should continue, we will reach solar minimum sometime late in 2017, two years earlier than predicted (as indicated by the red curve).

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The terrible political consequences of Iran deal to the Democratic Party

Several stories in the news today outline for me the terrible political consequences faced by the Democratic Party by their support for the nuclear deal with Iran:

This quote from the middle article however highlights how bad the consequences for the Democrats will be:

if Obama is left with a deal that is opposed by a majority of either the Senate or the House, the Democrats will be stuck with it. They will then be on the defensive with every hostile move Iran makes with the $150 billion the mullahs are going to get.

Like Obamacare, only Democrats are going to support this Iran deal. They will own it entirely. Thus, the first time Iran does something to violate the treaty or to use the $50 billion or more of cash they will get for signing the deal to promote terrorist attacks, it will be Democrats and only Democrats who will share the blame.

Yet, like Obamacare, the Democratic Party seems oblivious to these political risks. Come hell or high water, they are, as described in the first story, working as hard as they can to get the votes to sustain an Obama veto and make this deal law.

As much as I want these Democrats kicked out of office, I think having the Iran deal approved will be worse for the nation and the world. It will immediately dump billions of dollars into the hands of Iran’s radical terrorist leaders, surely resulting in more violence against many innocents across the globe. And it will announce to the world our willingness to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, which will almost certainly instigate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and probably prompt Israel to attack Iran, possibly with its own nuclear weapons.

None of this is good. Better that the Democrats should save themselves the political cost and oppose this horrible deal.

Unfortunately, I am not hopeful. The track record of today’s Democratic Party is that of a group of people willing to put ideology ahead of everything, even if it means they will lose elections like crazy afterward. I see nothing to make me think they will do different here.

Our only option afterward then will be to throw them out of office. I pray that come 2016, the election results will make the Republican landslides of 2010 and 2014 look like mild rebukes in comparison.

The wild Martian terrain

Yardangs on Mars

This week’s image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter illustrate well the wild and mysterious geology of the Martian surface. I include cropped sections from two images here, just to give you a taste. Go to the link to do your own exploring.

The image to the right is a cropped and scaled down version of the original image, so the details are not easily seen. Make sure you look at the original. The strange yardang ridges, all aligned alike, rise up out of a relatively smooth plain.

Yardangs are formed when a surface that is composed of materials of differing strengths (i.e., of both harder and softer materials) is shaped by the abrasive action of sand and dust carried by the wind. In this case, and given the proximity of the Apollonaris Patera volcanic center, we think that these wind-carved deposits are comprised of volcanic ash and pyroclastics that erupted from Apollonaris when it was last active in the not-too-distant geologic past. Over time, the softer materials (likely volcanic ash) were eroded away, leaving behind the harder materials in the form of elongated ridges that are parallel to the direction of the prevailing wind. The end result is a stunning, out-of-this-world display of yardangs, sculpted with the artistic chisel of the Martian wind.

That’s the theory, anyway. The actual geological process that formed these ridges is probably a lot more complicated.

The image below the fold illustrates the on-going surface activity on Mars.
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Ten years after the Russians did it, NASA finally produces lettuce in space

Lots of news stories today about yesterday’s lettuce feast on ISS, where a Japanese and two NASA astronauts chowed down on lettuce grown in a NASA-built space greenhouse, ten years after the Russians did it with the American-built and still working LADA greenhouse.

Almost all the stories below, however, fail to note that earlier effort, and instead make the false claim that this NASA experiment is the first to grow lettuce in space.

Only the last article, written at an alternative space news website normally focused on the collection of space memorabilia, gets it right, noting that the Russians did it more than a decade ago and have since then been regularly growing lettuce, peas, and radishes on ISS — and eating them. (They also link to the 2003 Air & Space article I wrote on this very subject.)

Meanwhile, take a scan of all the important mainstream news outlets above, none of whom did the slightest bit of research or fact-checking so they could find out that NASA’s experiment now is not the first, and in fact is more than a decade behind an earlier co-operative effort between the Russians and Utah State University.

This should make you wonder if maybe their other news research is as sloppy.

Big fire in the mountains above Tucson

At sunset tonight I went out into my back patio to enjoy the evening air and noticed smoke trailing off from the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. Taking a closer look with binoculars I discovered a major forest fire blazing on the front range of the Santa Catalina mountains, about a thousand feet above the city.

To give the layout, our home is on the west side of town, on a hill that overlooks the city. The Santa Catalina Mountains border the north side of Tucson, about ten miles away. (Below the fold is a short video showing the mountains and the smoke, taken today from the west side on one of the overpasses above the interstate, slightly south of my home. The video shows a view similar to what I can see.)

The fire, dubbed the Finger Rock fire after the canyon in which it started, was originally ignited by lightning last week, smoldered for a week, then re-ignited today and is spreading fast. While Diane and I watched this evening we saw the flames leap across from Pontatoc Ridge to the opposite wall of the adjacent valley, Ventana Canyon, which Diane and I last hiked in 2013. I saw flames that were easily 100 feet high.

We have hiked on Pontatoc Ridge. That trail is certainly badly damaged or destroyed. The lowest parts of the fire now appear to be burning at about 500 feet above the nearest homes in the foothills below. When it jumped into Ventana Canyon it appears to move uphill, so at the moment no one’s home is threatened. This is a very very rugged area. It will be difficult for fire crews to get there, no less work to control the blaze.

As the evening progressed and darkness set in the extent of the fire became easier to see, as the flames now stood out in the darkness through the smoke. Though the Forest Service seems sanguine about it, this is not a trivial fire. It threatens the entire front range of the Santa Catalinas, which is one of Tucson’s major recreation areas. Worse, it is close enough to the city that it poses a threat to the homes in the foothills.

Stay tuned for updates.

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The sunspot decline continues

On Monday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in July. As I have done every month since 2010, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

Sunspot counts continue to decline at a rate faster than predicted or is usual during ramp down from solar maximum. Normally the ramp down is slow and steady. This time it has so far been more precipitous. While the 2009 prediction of the solar science community (indicated by the red curve) suggests minimum will occur sometime after 2020, the actual counts suggest it will occur much sooner.

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Orion might not be ready for 2018 test flight

Government in action! Last week NASA admitted that the Orion capsule and its service module might not be ready for its 2018 test flight.

Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate, told members of the [NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration] subcommittee the Orion capsule’s European-made service module, which is being developed by Airbus Defense and Space, will probably be the last piece of the critical test flight to be ready for launch.

NASA and ESA officials, together with contractors from Orion-builder Lockheed Martin and Airbus, have discussed shipping the Orion service module from Europe to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida before it is finished. European engineers could travel to the Florida spaceport to complete construction of the service module before its integration with the Orion crew capsule, which is to be assembled by Lockheed Martin at KSC’s Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building.

Engineers plan to introduce changes to the Orion crew module after a successful orbital test flight in December 2014. The upgrades include a switch from a monolithic heat shield made of ablative Avcoat material to blocks of Avcoat, a change intended to improve the manufacturability of the thermal protection system. [emphasis mine]

I have highlighted the last paragraph above because it is written to give the false impression that the decision to change the heat shield resulted from the December 2014 test flight. The truth is that NASA had already decided to change heat shields before the test flight. Why NASA engineers are still “planning” to introduce these changes illustrates why government operations are absurdly wasteful.

Orion was first proposed by President George Bush in 2004. The first Orion contract was awarded in 2006. It is now a decade later, and NASA is suddenly warning us that they might not get a single capsule and service module built by 2018, 12 years after construction began. During that time they have spent approximately a billion dollars per year on Orion. For what?

Kennedy proposed going to the Moon in 1961. Eight years later Americans were walking there. Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. The U.S. completed the total defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in slightly more than three years, by the spring of 1945.

Today’s NASA however can’t get a single capsule and service module built in 12 years. The contrast is striking. Anyone with the slightest bit of common sense would say that with a track record like this, this program should be shut down now.

Counting bats on a Saturday evening

While most normal people spend their Saturday evenings going out to dinner followed by either a movie or a show, I spent this past Saturday doing something entirely different: counting bats!

There is a local cave here in the Tucson area that is a maternity colony for one species of bats. During the summer the females gather here to gossip and then give birth to their babies, after which they move on until next year. Because of a desire to help these bats, a few years ago the managers of the cave decided to close it during the summer months. This way humans wouldn’t be there to disturb the mothers during their labor.

The managers also decided to do regular bat counts of the bats leaving the cave each evening to feed, in order to get an estimate of the population size. To everyone’s delight they found the numbers rising year-to-year, following the summer closure. The total population of bats isn’t actually going up, but it appears that bats are finding this cave to be a good place to give birth, so more and more of them are making it their summer residence.

In the end the situation will contribute to an actual rise in population, as providing the maternity colony a safe haven will allow for more successful births and more babies.

In the past three years the bat count numbers over each summer would exhibit a typical bell curve, going up and then declining as the summer progressed, with the largest numbers ranging between 75 to 150 each night. However, last year there was one evening in which no bats left the cave. The bat biologist leading the bat count, Sandy Wolf, has theorized that this might be because the mothers are synchronizing their labor so that everyone gives birth at the same time and, because of that, on that night no one exits for feeding.. She knows that some species do this, but for this particular species such behavior has never been documented.

Anyway, she decided to find out. This has required that someone be at the entrance counting the bats at least every other evening. (In past years the counts were only done about once a week.) This has required more help, and thus Sandy has called for volunteers to do the work.

And that is how I and fellow caver Jerry Isaman ended up hiking up the hill to the cave with digital camera, infrared lights, and monitor this past Saturday.

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Worlds without end

Last week’s fly-by of Pluto by New Horizons illustrated forcefully once again the power of exploration on the human mind, and how that exploration always carries surprises that delight and invigorate us.

First of all, the images from that fly-by demonstrated clearly that the decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to declare Pluto a non-planet was very much premature. Even project scientist Alan Stern himself enthusiastically noted at the start of Friday press conference that Pluto-Charon was a “double planet system”.

The IAU definition itself was faulty and difficult to apply. The clause that required a planet to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” made little sense in the real universe, as even the Earth has not successfully cleared its orbit after several billion years. Was the IAU suggesting the Earth was not a planet?

New Horizons’s discovery last week that even a small object like Pluto, orbiting the Sun on its own with no gas giant nearby to provide tidal heating, can still exhibit significant and on-going geological activity, shows that our understanding of what defines a planet is at this time quite limited. We simply don’t know enough about planetary evolution and formation to definitively define the term. Nor do we have enough knowledge to determine if Pluto falls into that category, though the data strongly suggests that it does.

Are planets made up of only gas giants, rocky terrestrial planets like the Earth, and dwarf planets like Ceres and Pluto? Or are there numerous other as yet unknown categories?
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The government-run Russian space program trims its budget

In the heat of competition: Even as the Russians consolidate their entire aerospace industry into a single entity run by the government, the government has revealed that — due to the country’s recent economic troubles — the budget for space will have to be trimmed.

I found the juxtaposition of these two stories today quite revealing, and illustrates to me the fundamental problem with the Russian Soviet-style government-run approach. Under the competitive, capitalist system that the U.S. is finally beginning to adopt for its space program, when the economy forces budget cuts, competition naturally requires the different companies in the industry to lower costs and innovate. If they don’t, their competitors will get the business. This in turn keeps the industry vibrant, and actually acts to end the tough economic times.

In the Soviet-style system, there is no incentive to compete or innovate. There is only one company, no competition, and everything is decided by a single leadership on top. The government can demand innovation by command from above, but this is not the most effective way to make it happen. Some will obey the commands and try harder. Most however will simply hunker down during hard times, taking fewer risks to cover their asses so they won’t be a target for those budget cuts.

Moreover, with a single government entity running everything, if the economy goes sour the budget must be cut to the entire industry. And since the cuts are determined by a handful of powerful government officials at the top, using money they obtained by coercion (tax-dollars) and not from customers who voluntarily purchased the product, they have no guidance on what parts of the industry to cut. They are just as likely cut the best because it involves too much risk, or because their buddies in a poorly run agency bribed them more.

Capitalism, however, provides competing independent companies, some of which are going to have their own sources of income that might flow independent of a shrinking economy. And it is quality that determines who lives and who dies, not corrupt and powerful government officials. The better companies gain customers, while the less efficient companies naturally fall by the wayside. Thus, during hard economic times competitive capitalism actually works to increase an industry’s efficiency while simultaneously helping to reinvigorate the industry.

This all suggests to me once again that while the consolidation in Russia of its aerospace industry might provide them a short-term burst of success, in the long run they will find it difficult to keep up with America’s private companies.

A new double dynamo theory to explain the Sun’s solar cycle

A team of solar scientists have proposed a new theory that they think explains the ebb and flow of the Sun’s eleven year solar cycle, and if right can explain the periodic occurrence of grand minimums where there are essentially no sunspots for decades, such as the Maunder Minimum in the 1600s.

The theory proposes that the Sun has two different dynamos that produce different magnetic waves in its interior. Like waves that can either cancel each other out or combine for more power, these two dynamos do the same over time and thus effect the Sun’s sunspot/solar cycle.

“We found magnetic wave components appearing in pairs, originating in two different layers in the Sun’s interior. They both have a frequency of approximately 11 years, although this frequency is slightly different, and they are offset in time. Over the cycle, the waves fluctuate between the northern and southern hemispheres of the Sun. Combining both waves together and comparing to real data for the current solar cycle, we found that our predictions showed an accuracy of 97%,” said Zharkova.

Zharkova and her colleagues derived their model using a technique called ‘principal component analysis’ of the magnetic field observations from the Wilcox Solar Observatory in California. They examined three solar cycles-worth of magnetic field activity, covering the period from 1976-2008. In addition, they compared their predictions to average sunspot numbers, another strong marker of solar activity. All the predictions and observations were closely matched.

Looking ahead to the next solar cycles, the model predicts that the pair of waves become increasingly offset during Cycle 25, which peaks in 2022. During Cycle 26, which covers the decade from 2030-2040, the two waves will become exactly out of synch and this will cause a significant reduction in solar activity.

“In cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other – peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun. Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a ‘Maunder minimum’,” said Zharkova. “Effectively, when the waves are approximately in phase, they can show strong interaction, or resonance, and we have strong solar activity. When they are out of phase, we have solar minimums. When there is full phase separation, we have the conditions last seen during the Maunder minimum, 370 years ago.”

And on this same subject, last week NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in June. As I have done every month since 2010, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.
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What we will and will not see during the Pluto fly-by

Pluto's two hemispheres

The images above, released today by the New Horizons’ science team, provide the best global view so far of Pluto’s two hemispheres. I have cropped and rearranged the original to focus on Pluto.

The images illustrate some basic new knowledge about the planet. For one, scientists have now identified the planet’s poles, based upon its rotation. While scientists had had a very rough vague idea of Pluto’s rotation and inclination beforehand, they have now pinned it down pretty precisely.

The images also show the planet’s most striking and unique features, though not with enough resolution to tell us what they are.

New color images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show two very different faces of the mysterious dwarf planet, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. Each of the spots is about 300 miles in diameter, with a surface area that’s roughly the size of the state of Missouri.

Scientists have yet to see anything quite like the dark spots; their presence has piqued the interest of the New Horizons science team, due to the remarkable consistency in their spacing and size. While the origin of the spots is a mystery for now, the answer may be revealed as the spacecraft continues its approach to the mysterious dwarf planet. “It’s a real puzzle—we don’t know what the spots are, and we can’t wait to find out,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. “Also puzzling is the longstanding and dramatic difference in the colors and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and grayer moon Charon.”

This image release also shows us what we will and will not see during the fly-by. The image on the left is the “encounter hemisphere.” This is the hemisphere that will be in view during New Horizons’ July 14 fly-by. We shall get very nice high resolutions of much of this hemisphere.

The other hemisphere, however, will not be facing us during the fly-by. Unless that can get some high resolution images before it rotates out of view, the row of large dark spots at the equator will remain a mystery.

The images also suggest that, because of Pluto’s tilt, much of the southern hemisphere is not going to be seen at all. It will remain an additional mystery for the many decades that are going to pass before another spacecraft finally returns to this distant place.

The negative, depressing mainstream press

Sunday’s Falcon 9 failure has given us a great opportunity to learn something about the mainstream press and the elite culture that dominates it. As expected, while the space-oriented press focused on what happened and what will be done to fix the problem, almost every mainstream press outlet immediately concluded that the failure was a disaster that could and (with some outlets) should ring the death knell for private space. Here are just a few examples:

I could go on. Notice that these are almost all mainstream news sources. The few that specialize in science reporting, such as Scientific American, New Scientist, and National Geographic, also tend to push the left wing science agenda.

If you can force yourself to read these articles, as I have, you will find yourself inundated with negativity, pessimism, and a can’t-do attitude. Moreover, many of these articles seem expressly designed to encourage the public and politicians to withdraw their support for space exploration. For example, the Scientific American article, in outlining the history of recent ISS cargo failures, includes this quote:

Public support for the private space industry also took a blow last October (just three days after the Orbital Sciences ATK mishap) when Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space plane SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, killing one of its pilots. [emphasis mine]

Does Scientific American provide us any evidence that public support had dropped after these failures? No. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that support dropped, and if anything, based on the budget increases over the years for commercial space (despite Congressional efforts to trim that budget), support has continued to grow through thick and thin.

No, Scientific American inserted this statement because they want support to drop, and have tailored their article to help make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. The negativity of all these other articles suggest that their writers and outlets feel the same. Life is hard! Bad things can happen! Better that we stick our head in the sand and hide from the evil thunder gods rather than look up to try to figure out what thunder is!

For myself, I do not find the Falcon 9 failure this past weekend depressing in the slightest. This is a company and a rocket that hadn’t even existed a little more than decade ago, and in that short time they have revolutionized the rocket industry. Rockets fail. This is no surprise. Their track record, however, tells us that they will figure out what went wrong and start flying again, as soon as they can.

What I do find depressing is the failure culture of today’s modern intellectual society. It is one reason I do not depend on them for news, and in general try to depend on them for as little as possible for anything else.

Falcon 9 explodes two minutes into launch

Today’s Falcon 9 rocket launch of a Dragon freighter to ISS ended in failure slightly past 2 minutes after lift-off when the upper stage exploded.

My first thought about this failure is the supply problems it causes at ISS. The Progress failure in April strained the supply lines, making this Dragon flight somewhat critical.

In a presentation to a committee of the NASA Advisory Council here April 9, NASA officials said that food supplies on the ISS would reach a threshold called “reserve level” on July 24, and go to zero by Sept. 5. That assumed that the station received no more supplies beyond a SpaceX Dragon cargo mission launched to the station in April.

The other major limiting consumable is a solid waste container known by the Russian acronym KTO. Without additional cargo missions beyond the Dragon flight, KTO supplies would reach the reserve level July 20 and be exhausted on Sept. 2. Other consumables, including water, would not reach reserve levels until later in the year or early 2016.

In other words, some of the station’s toilets are going to begin to overflow without more supplies. It is possible however that this problem will be alleviated by the planned July 3 launch of the next Progress, especially since NASA officials claimed just prior to the launch failure today that ISS had enough supplies to last through October.

As for the launch failure, I expect that SpaceX will quickly pinpoint the problem and schedule another launch. I have embedded video of the launch below the fold. Prior to the explosion of the first stage all looks completely normal. In fact, immediately before the failure the announcer notes this fact, making what happens next especially shocking.

Update: I have corrected the first paragraph, correcting it from “first stage” to “upper stage.”
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Some stories of hate

This morning civilized people the world over were greeted with several stories of hate and violence, where the perpetrators attempted to kill large numbers of people, merely because of their race or religion.

The first — and the one that our bankrupt mainstream media will spend all of its time reporting — occurred in Charleston, where a hate-filled racist killed nine black church-goers during a prayer session.

This was an evil act, committed by an evil and sick man. No sane or civilized person on the left or right condones it.

Two other stories, both reported in the Israeli news outlet The Jewish Press, described two attacks in the Middle East, one on a Jewish religious site and the other on a Christian religious site.

Both of these Middle Eastern attacks are as evil as the massacre in Charleston. Both expressed the same mass hatred of a group of people, this time based on religion rather than race. And as in Charleston, no sane or civilized person on the left or right should condone them.

Sadly, I expect America’s modern leftwing intellectual class, represented by our mainstream media, to focus entirely on the first, not only condemning the murderous attack in Charleston but to use that act as an excuse to attack all conservatives, essentially repeating the crime by expressing a mass hatred of an entire group of people, this time because of their political beliefs.

The Middle East violence will meanwhile be ignored. In fact, if you dig hard enough, you will likely be able to find examples in the left wing press where these acts are condoned.

In a sense, the reactions of people to these violent evil events provide us a litmus test for hate. They will reveal who is civilized and who is not. Those who are civilized will condemn them all, and will not spend any time trying to assign the act to their political opponents. Those who are not will try to make political points and will try to assign blame in all the wrong places.

Watch and listen. If you pay close attention over the next few days, and keep a clear mind, you will be able to learn a lot.

Finding caves on Mars

A new study of pits on Mars has isolated one particular type of pit that has all the features of an Earth-like cave entrance, with a large number located in the regions around the giant volcanoes where evidence of past glacier activity has been found. From the abstract:

These Atypical Pit Craters (APCs) generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios that are usually greater than 0.3 (which is an upper range value for impacts and bowl-shaped pit craters) and can exceed values of 1.8. Observations by the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) show that APC floor temperatures are warmer at night and fluctuate with much lower diurnal amplitudes than nearby surfaces or adjacent bowl-shaped pit craters.

In other words, these pits are deeper with steeper and overhanging walls that suggest underlying passages. They also maintain warmer temperatures at night with their day/night temperatures changing far less than the surface, similar to caves on Earth where the cave temperature remains the same year-round.

The study’s most important finding, from my perspective, was the location of these pit craters.
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Ramp down to solar minimum continues

On Sunday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in May. As I have done since 2010, I am posting it here, with annotations to give it context.

May 2015 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

Sunspot activity once again increased in May, though it continues to remain below the 2009 prediction of activity. Though it is still early in the ramp down, a look at the present pattern suggests that (as I also noted last month) sunspot activity is declining much faster than normal. In the past, the ramp down after solar maximum was long and drawn out, while ramp up was much faster. This ramp down seems much more precipitous than past solar cycles.

I should add that in early April Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations (SILSO) had declared that the peak of the solar maximum had occurred in April 2014, and that they could now sum up the overall weakness of this maximum.

Cycle 24 proves to be 30% weaker than the previous solar cycle, which reached 119.7 in July 2000, and thus belongs to the category of moderate cycles, like cycles 12 to 15, which were the norm in the late 19th and early 20th century. Compared to strong cycles, such cycles typically feature a broader maximum, with a 3-year plateau on top of which two or more surges of activity can produce sharp peaks of similar height.

I had missed this announcement when it was first posted. It is worth noting however, especially since their discussion in April is interesting to read in the context of what has happened since.

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