Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

The wind-blown dunes of Mars

The HiRise Camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has released some wonderful new pictures, showing what are called barchan dunes on Mars.

Barchans are crescent-shaped, with the horns of the crescents pointing downwind. One barchan is visible in the upper part of the image, with the Southeast (lower right) horns longer than the other. This trend, along with the position of the steep face of the dune on the South side, indicates that the predominant winds which formed the dunes came from the North.

There are a lot more great images on the websites above.

Wind-blown dunes

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Life in the Chilean mine

A very detailed update on the trapped Chilean miners, now expected to be rescured in early November. Two key quotes:

The miners are sleeping on cots that were sent down in pieces and reassembled, and each can look forward every weekend to eight minutes each of video chat time with his family using compact cameras and a phone that was disassembled to fit through the hole.

And:

Their routine starts with breakfast – hot coffee or tea with milk and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Then lots of labor: Removing the loose rock that drops through the bore holes as they are being widened into escape tunnels; cleaning up their trash and emptying the toilet; and attending to the capsules known as “palomas” – Spanish for carrier pigeons – that are lowered to them with supplies.

The miners must quickly remove the contents – food, clean clothes, medicine, family letters and other supplies – and send back up material such as dirty clothes, rolled up like sausages to fit. Each trip down takes 12 to 15 minutes, then four minutes for unloading and five minutes to pull them back up. At least three miners are constantly stationed at the bore hole for this work.

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The single most powerful political force in the nation

Want to know what the actual future consequences of the Tea Party movement will be? Read this op-ed by Glenn Reynolds. Key quote:

Both political parties are out of touch, and ordinary Americans are very unhappy about it, as they watch the Treasury being looted, the economy sink, and the political, journalistic, and financial ruling-class figures escaping the consequences of their ham-handed and self-serving actions.

Also:

For now, Republicans are (sort of) the beneficiaries. Though Tea Partiers aren’t happy with the GOP, they’re much less happy with the Democrats. In this election cycle, Republicans will benefit. But Tea Partiers are also taking over the GOP from the bottom up, running for precinct chairs and state committee seats.

This makes sense: There are barriers to entry for third parties, and it makes more sense to take over an existing party than to start from scratch, if that’s possible.

But those establishment GOP figures who think that they’ll cruise to victory and a return to the pocket-stuffing business-as-usual that marked the prior GOP majority need to think again. This election cycle is, in a very real sense, a last chance for the Republicans. If they blow it, we’re likely to see third-party challenges in 2012, not only at the Presidential level but in numerous Congressional races as well.

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The layoffs at NASA

More layoffs yesterday at NASA, this time at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Also, this report gives a good overview of all the layoffs so far.

One question: The authorization bill that passed Congress on Wednesday night specifically required NASA to continue construction of a heavy-lift vehicle, quite similar in concept to Constellation. Why then is NASA management laying off all these Constellation workers? Granted, the authorization did not provide Constellation with as much money as previously budgeted, but the layoffs seem greater than necessary at this time, considering the budget differences. Also, the lack of a final budget from Congress might require these layoffs to occur temporarily, pending a new budget, but NASA is not making it clear that this is the case. Instead, they are letting a lot of people go without giving them any guidance about NASA’s future plans.

If the Obama administration was serious about fulfilling Congress’s legal requirement to build a heavy-lift vehicle (as deputy administration Lori Garver said they were on Thursday), I would have expected them to be more forthcoming to these NASA employees, if only to encourage them to remain available for rehiring, for at least a short time. That they have not is very telling.

Do not expect this heavy-lift vehicle to be built.

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Antarctic increase in sea ice since 1970 cannot be explained by ozone hole

In another paper published today in the Geophysical Research Letters of the American Geophysical Union, researchers have found, according to their computer model, that the increase in sea ice since 1970 in Antarctica cannot be explained by the ozone hole. (Note that the sea ice has been shrinking in the northern hemisphere while it has been growing in the south.) Key quote from paper:

It is presently unclear why the observed Southern Hemisphere sea ice extent trends are so different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. Previous studies have suggested that the cause might be related to atmospheric circulation changes induced by the stratospheric ozone hole. The results in this study are not consistent with this view and highlight the need for continued investigations of Antarctic sea ice extent trends.

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Modern climate models can’t predict sudden climate change

A paper published today in Geophysical Research Letters of the American Geophysical Union says that the general circulation climate models used by scientists today to predict things like global warming cannot predict past examples of similar sudden climate change. Key quote from abstract:

These [sudden] shifts are thus noise induced with very limited predictability, and early detection of them in the future might be wishful thinking.

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Watch out for those toxic paper clips!

The bureaucracy marches on! The Consumer Product Safety Commission wants the manufacturers of kids’ science kits to test the paper clips in those kits for lead and other toxic chemicals, even if the paper clips were purchased in an ordinary office supply store. Key quote

“It is crazy that the Hands-On Science Partnership needs to be concerned about doing lead tests on products purchased at an office supply store and then packaged into a science teaching kit for use with children,” Commissioner Nancy Nord wrote on her blog. “Even crazier is the fact that if a teacher buys the same paper clip at the same store and uses it for the same science teaching project, it’s okay.”

To me, this quote is even more disturbing:

Commissioners insist the regulations will not ban science kits and would be applied on a case-by-case basis. [emphasis mine]

In other words, the regulation will not be applied objectively, but subjective, at the whim of the regulators. Every product of every manufacturer will have to get the Commission’s approval before it can be sold.

If that isn’t a mandate for mischief, I don’t know what is.

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Listen to the sound of Babylonia

A researcher at the University of Cambridge is posting audio recordings on the web of Babylonian poetry, myths, and other texts, so that everyone can hear what the ancient languages sounded like. Key quote:

“In many cases [the works] are the equivalent of Old English tales like Beowulf,” Dr. Worthington added. “Through them, we meet gods, giants, monsters and all sorts of other weird and wonderful creatures. As stories they are amazing fun.”

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The view from Opportunity, September 16, 2010

The view from Opportunity, September 16, 2010. Near the rover you can see the bedrock periodically exposed under windblown sand. The rock sitting on the sand in the distance is thought to be a meteorite, to which Opportunity is heading for a closer look. In the distance can be seen the rim of Endurance Crater, the rover’s eventual destination.

view from Opportunity

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The state of the Sun, September 30, 2010

Time to update the state of the Sun, as seen by satellite data (the last update was in July). The graph below, posted today by Physikalisch- Meteorologisches Observatorium Davos (PMOD), shows the variation in the Sun’s Total Solar Irradiance since 1978. I have added a blue horizontal line to show that even now, two years after the Sun reached the lowest point in its most recent solar minimum, it has still not brightened enough to equal the lowest point in the two previous minimums. (Note that if we included the minimum from 1976, the Sun would still be below that as well.)

solar cycle as of Sept 30, 2010

Once again, the evidence is building that the Sun might be heading towards the weakest maximum seen to two centuries. And when that happened, things got very cold on Earth.

the sunspot cycle

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