Science and Space

By nature, I'm a scientist. My philosophy is basically the scientific method, despite the fact that my paycheck comes from elsewhere. This is where I post about scientific topics that interest me, particularly related to space exploration and the promotion of science in popular culture.

Solar eclipse Across the United States in 2017!

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Screen capture of a part of the NASA/Google Map image of the 2017 eclipse pathI'm sure those who are  more active in astronomical things were well aware of this for a long time, but I just became aware that there is a massive total solar eclipse that will cross the entire United States in August of 2017. And more importantly from my perspective is that it will actually cross part of Georgia, so I can drag my kids and wife out to see it! 

The American Astronomical Society has a landing page covering the eclipse and their efforts to promote its viewing. That can be found at:

The AAS also points to a great page that NASA has created using Google Maps to show the path of totality as well as the lines for the outer edges of partiality all across the U.S. It's a great interactive tool. For example, in the screen capture at right, I zoomed in to show how the path crosses the northeast corner of Georgia. Clicking on any point in the map shows a popup of the eclipse conditions visible at that location. As an example, I clicked on a spot right on the central path line.

I know some people travel half way around the world, taking long trips on boats in the southern Indian Ocean just to see a total eclipse, so I would think it personally irresponsible of me to miss this chance. I'm not sure where we'll go to view it yet, but I've already informed my wife that we must be there. 

Sliver Moon Setting over Roswell

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This photo was from a couple weeks back, but I still wanted to post it. This was an evening between our two rare snow storms here in Atlanta. A couple days after the first one that turned the evening commute into a driver stranding nightmare all over the city, we had a brief one day warm up. That evening, I saw this gorgeous sliver of a moon setting in the clear skies over Roswell. My iPhone camera isn't great, but I felt compelled to capture the scene.

When I see a view like this, with the ball of the moon floating in the sky . . .clearly being a ball, it makes one feel very small, but also very connected. We spend so much of our lives living in two dimensions, I love these moments when I remember I'm part of a great big universe, and there's a giant ball floating in the sky above the giant ball of dirt I'm walking around on. With the moon backlit like this, I always think that even the ancients, or the primitive humans, or even the australopithicines, HAD to have looked up at this and realized, even if it was on some instinctive level, what the physical reality was of what they were seeing. We are so lucky to have our moon. And we are so lucky to live on such a gorgeous planet.

Let's try not to fuck it up by ruining the global climate.   M'kay?

Delta Heavy launch today in California with another spy satellite

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Note: Everything here is public information. I'm not a reporter, but a space fan.

2:21pm EST Update - Success, at least up to the point where they black out news coverage. It got through booster separation, main engine cut-off, second stage engine start, and nose cone jettisonning. That's probably 90% to minimal orbit, and about 50% to it's final orbit.

I used to watch shuttle and other launches obsessively, but in recent years the excitement has waned. I and many others have been more excited by the prospects of private companies getting into the space game, but that too has faded in recent years. SpaceX is doing great stuff, but at about one quarter the speed we all expected.  We'll see next month if that continues as they launch their first upgraded Falcon 9 from their new heavy launch pad at Vandenberg  But much of the other private space industry excitement has faded in the last five years. First, Scaled Composites and Virgin Gallactic had their rocket engine explosion in the Mohave desert in July of 2007 that killed three of their most experienced rocket engine guys, which completely shocked the entire private space industry.  As a result of this and other setbacks, there's been a series of slow collapses of many of these private space companies, such as happened with Armadillo Aerospace this past year.

Delta 4 Heavy on the launch pad, 2013-08-28. NROL-65.  Photo Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch AllianceSo what's left to watch for a space enthusiast? Really, it's back to the established players. Later today, the US military will be launching a gigantic satellite (or possibly two) for the National Reconnaissance Office, the government office responsible for providing spy satellites to the CIA and other intelligence agencies of the US government. As usual with these launches, they won't say exactly what they're launching, but based on the launch time and target orbit, which have to be supplied to the public to ensure clearance around the launch pad, experts in the industry probably know what's going up today.  The photo at right was taken by a pad teammember early this morning.

For Home solar, times have certainly changed

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Creative Commons license. Solar panel installation at an information center adjacent to Ögii Lake Source= Chinneeb Date=2010-08-06In a recent article on, which is copied from her New York Times article, Dianne Cardwell documents how U.S. electricity companies are ramping up their efforts against residential solar.  You see, the issue is, and the power companies are sort of not really prepared for this . . . but after several decades of predictions that Solar power would finally become competitive, it actually now is competitive. People putting solar panels on their rooftops was fine with the power company executives for many years because, you know, it didn't really MATTER. It was sort of cute, really. All those naive environmentally minded citizens thinking they could get along with the grid. 

Over the years, laws have been put in place to promote home solar. Many states have tax rebates or credits to help a homeowner buy a solar panel system for their house. I've wanted to do this for several decades, so I've been following the trends. Home Power magazine is THE source for people who want to install solar on their homeI read Home Power Magazine for a long time before home solar became a real thing . . .  you know, serious and less fun.  Back in the 80s, a full solar array for a home with the supporting electronics and cabling could run $50,000 or more. Most home systems are around 2.5kW, which is enough to run basically everything except the two big things; home heating and home air conditioning. A typical home roof isn't big enough for a system to run everything, and most people don't have a spare acre or two on which to ground mount enough panels to do that. Plus, having a full 10kW of solar panels is pretty inefficient since you only need it about 20% of the time in most locations, so the extra power generated would be wasted. So homeowners who wanted to go solar had a choice, either cut back on comfort in the form of heating and air conditioning, go to some other old-school method like wood stoves and fans, spend a lot more money for another system like a ground temperature cooling system, or figure out a way to have both solar and regular grid power.

Proposed science education standards in Kentucky bring out the Know Nothings

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Kentucky StatehouseSo . . . Kentucky is attempting to adopt an evidence-based broadly accepted educational standard for teaching science in public schools, and during public comments, religious groups oppose it as oppressive and promoting socialism.   The quote from a Baptist minister is, perhaps, typical, but still appalling, "Outsiders are telling public school families that we must follow the rich man’s elitist religion of evolution, that we no longer have what the Kentucky Constitution says is the right to worship almighty God."

The quote comes from a Huffington Post article about the controversy, but there is much more detail about the nuances of the debate over at The Spectrum. (I gather that the latter is an AP story.)

It's all projection with these people, isn't it? (Along with an inability to sense irony.)

Book review: Radical Abundance by K. Eric Drexler

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Radical Abundance, or How a Revolution in Nanotechnology will Change Civilization by K. Eric DrexlerReview of "Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology will Change Civilization" by K. Eric Drexler. Reviewed on July 8th, 2013. 

Back in the 1980s, Eric Drexler coined the term and popularized the concept of what we now call 'nanotechnology'.  This book is a sort of 'So where are we now?' update on the state of the art and the concepts. I found the book alternatingly mind-blowing and tedious.  That's somewhat hard to do, yet that was my experience with Radical Abundance.

I think the reason for that reaction is that the author's intent in writing this books is somewhat schyzophrenic.  He wants to popularize his ideas, but he saw what happened to them back in the 90s and early 2000s, and is afraid that that will happen again. He sees in the history of this technology that it went wildly awry from his intentions, but for political reasons dealing with human nature rather than anything technical. He wants us to be excited, but not overly excited.  That latter part is where the tedium comes in. He attempts to undermine the 'gee-whiz' aspects of the ideas as much as he can, because he doesn't want accolytes. He wants thinking engineers to make it come true.  But this dual focus can cause him to be a bit repetitive and a bit of a worrywart.

The Very Odd Interview: Dr Kiki on Triangulation

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Dr Kirsten Sanford on TriangulationLeo Laporte's TWIT network has a show where they interview notable and interesting people from, well, it seems wherever they can GET them. I suspect they have some trouble with their 'gets' as they call them in the broadcast business. Outside of their little bubble of fanbase, not many people know who the hell they are. Which sort of explains this past week's Triangulation interview with Dr Kirsten Sanford. Now Dr. Kiki is certainly notable, at least in my estimation, because she's one of only five or six serious science popularizers out there in American culture right now.  NOT tech journalists, but SCIENCE journalists . . . someone who knows what it is to work as a scientist and yet can talk to a general audience in a way we can all understand. 

We have Bill Nye, Dr. Kiki, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and who else? Perhaps Laurence Krauss, who I notice mostly because he was briefly associated with my undergraduate alma mater, Case Western Reserve Univerisity in Cleveland. But Dr Krauss is mostly a dick.* There are a couple of people who particularly talk about space science occasionally, like Elon Musk (when it involves SpaceX), Peter Diamandis, when it comes to private industry space, and Miles O'Brien.  There is a very small cadre of people that the media calls upon when serious science topics need to be discussed. Now, Dr. Kiki, despite her long running This Week in Science (TWIS) web and radio show, is small potatoes compared to the others. She was starting to get a higher profile, being noticed in more places and getting called upon more to speak out about such things thanks to the decision by Leo Laporte to carry the TWIS show on his TWIT network.   But then, in mid 2012, This Week in Science was kicked off of TWIT.   According to a message shared by Dr. Sanford on her TWIS website, it was because the TWIT CEO, Lisa Kentzell, declared that the network was 'reorganizing' and would no longer carry other people's shows.  Just to set the scene, Ms. Kentzell is also Mr. Laporte's girlfriend.  This move came as a shock to me and many other people who watch TWIT shows and who liked Dr. Kiki's work there, especially since she had been used more and more to pick up coverage for other shows, such as MacBreak Weekly coverage of tech shows, among other things.

For Wind Power, 2012 was a Good Year

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Wind Turbines at Holderness, Wikipedia, Creative CommonsI like to follow news about alternative energy. I have ever since I was a kid and the only people who installed windmills were farmers on the prairie to pump water to their cattle, and those weirdos in California. We've come a long way.  Last year was the first year in history in which of all of the new electrical generating capacity installed in the United States, more than half was wind turbines.  We, humanity, are finally learning, I guess.

The best place I've found to find info about wind generating capacity worldwide is what's now known as Wind Power Monthly. Although they've closed off most of their content now to only subscribers . . . a natural outgrowth of the fact that the industry itself is becoming more real as a business, they still provide some basic statistics to the unwashed masses. Being one of the most unwashed, I like to read their year-end reviews. This years', in particular, is outstanding.

More than 51GW of new electrical generating capacity was installed around the world in 2012.  To put that in real-world terms,  (at least terms that are real in my world)  that is enough new power generated annually by wind turbines to send a Delorean time machine on 42 trips through time.  Emmett Brown and I are ecstatic about this.

TransHab on ISS would have been useful

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One of a series of posts on the forums, that eventually got me a lifetime ban there. I could probably just create another account to login to that site, but I refuse. The engineers in the aerospace industry are too damned touchy, and I can't handle talking to them.  Which is probably just as well, since they're really isn't any value for them in talking to me either.