Posts filed under 'Science'

Parícutin: The Mexican Cornfield Volcano

When I was in elementary school, I had this series of books profiling the natural wonders of world that I probably picked-up at a garage sale. Most the entries were unsurprising — Mt. Everest, the Grand Canyon, etc. However, mixed in the bunch was this volcano named Parícutin that emerged from a Mexican cornfield in the 1940s. This books didn’t offer any pictures of the volcano, but it did feature some stylized drawings. The thin narrative described a volcano that unexpectedly emerged from a farmer’s field and quickly grew into a mountain. It was the sort of story that fascinated me for years and lead me to believe the ground we stand on could come alive with smoke and fire at any moment. Well it turns out this childhood book left out quite a few details that paint a more accurate picture of what happened on February 20th, 1943. First of all, the region surround the cornfield volcano is dotted with extinct cinder cones, so this is an area with a history of frequent volcanic activities. Another piece of information my old book left out is there existed a shallow pit for decades in the cornfield. It was from this pit that first fissure appeared on February 20th. The pit should have been a warning sigh since it was always warm, it could not be filled in, and strange noises were often reported coming from deep within the ground. Leading up to February 20th, there had been numerous earthquakes. On the 20th, the quakes were so frequent, villagers feared the local church would be destroyed. Dionisio Pulido, the owner of the cornfield, had headed off to burn some branches around 4:00 PM on the 20th when he noticed a fissure had opened up in the pit. He poked at it a bit, lost interest, and returned to his work. Moments later, all hell breaks loose. Smoke starts to shoot out of the pit accompanied by a piercing whistle. Not surprisingly, Dionisio, along with his field hands and family, fled the area. By 6:00 PM, a small group from the local village had approached the cornfield to investigate. By now, rocks were being blasted into the air from the pit. By the next day, lava was flowing from the small hill that had replaced the pit. The volcano was now well on its way to nine years of continuous eruption. Soon to be a mountain, Parícutin would reach a height of 9,000 feet (although it was only 1,000 feet above the original cornfield). Parícutin is believed to be a monogenetic volcano, meaning that after eruption stops, the mountain volcano becomes extinct. While there were no fatalities from ash or lava, the volcano did force many local residents to relocate and lava flows spread out from the base of Parícutin. Some interesting period film footage can be found on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website

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Add comment July 19th, 2013

SpaceX: You Rock

A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty unflattering post regarding SpaceX, the private outfit working to put cargo and people into low Earth orbit (LEO). Today marked the successful launch of their first cargo vessel to the International Space Station. While the mission has not been successfully completed yet, I’m willing to concede I was wrong about Elon Musk and his company. In my original post from 2008, I portrayed Musk as naive. But after watching the 60 Minutes profile of him and SpaceX a while back, I’ve changed my tune. SpaceX has bounced back from their failures. What is really remarkable is how the company has stayed on track and has maintained a clear vision of what they want to accomplish. I’m not sure how much of this is Musk and how much of it is his leadership team. Whatever the case, I’m really excited to see how their future spaceflights change the LEO game. Hopefully, continued SpaceX success will mean NASA can focus on deep space exploration. I would love to see NASA move on to exploring near Earth asteroids.

Add comment May 22nd, 2012

Remembering the Scotts Mills Quake of ‘93

With the (sort of) recent earthquake in Virginia, I was reminded of our last significant shaker here in Oregon, the Scotts Mills (or “Spring Break”) quake of March 25th, 1993 with a registered magnitude of 5.6. It was my junior year of college and our school observed spring break a week before most schools. I happened to be extremely sick at the time, so when the rumbling started in the early hours (5:34 AM to be exact), I remained in bed. Really, the shaking didn’t last all that long — I’m guessing just 10 seconds. It sounded like a freight train was passing by my window though. I had one of those cheap chipboard shelves in my dorm room and had a TV sitting it. It really freaked me out to see it swaying dangerously back and forth. Overall, the quake did little damage and there were no serious injuries. In Salem, the State Capitol building needed repairs due to some cracks in the wall of the rotunda. There was a bridge in McMinnville that was damaged and an elementary school that had to be condemned. In total, FEMA reported 16 residences and 54 businesses sustained major damage. There are no known faults in the Scott Mills area; however the Mt. Angel fault is not far away. As a side note, while I was researching a history project in college I came across an article from the late 1890s about strange geological occurrences in Scotts Mills — something like liquefied sand spurting from the ground. Not sure if this might be related to a fault line in the area, but it made me wonder about the unknown dangers lurking under that part of the Willamette Valley.

The only other time I experienced a significant earthquake was in 2001, when the office building I was working in shook pretty hard from a quake in Washington. That quake was probably more like the one experienced out on the East Coast.

Add comment September 14th, 2011

Goodbye Space Shuttle

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NASA’s Space Shuttle program has come to an end. I’m certainly feeling nostalgic already, but unlike a handful of legislators from Florida and Texas, I feel the smart thing to do is cleanly end the program. In a previous post about NASA’s ’70s era space station Skylab, I mentioned that program was developed under the assumption a future Space Shuttle would be able to service the orbiting outpost. This was all part of a grand NASA vision of space exploration that emerged during the ’70s. After the success of the Apollo program, NASA began to plan for the next phase of launching people into space, which included ambitious plans to put astronauts into long term orbit. Unfortunately, the Shuttle program suffered numerous delays in the ’70s and the Skylab program died before a working partnership could be developed. When the first Shuttle launched in 1981, it was unclear exactly what role it would be filling within a larger space program. At first, it seemed like the Shuttle could be used to put super secret spy satellites into orbit. But after the Challenger accident in 1986, the Air Force and the intelligence community decided they didn’t want to rely on the Shuttle, so they went back to launching on traditional rockets like the Delta. Without a major sponsor like the military, the Shuttle lacked a clear purpose. It failed to deliver on the promise of making cargo hauling cheaper, so commercial satellites continued to ride into space atop conventional, and unmanned, expendable rockets. Another failure of the program was safety. The Shuttle was not originally designed with a crew escape system, unlike all of the other space vehicles previously developed. While such a system probably would not have saved the crews of the Challenger and Columbia, it was a serious short coming that was never fully addressed. Finally, the cost of the Shuttle program was far more than anyone anticipated. The work required to make a Shuttle (and solid fuel boosters) ready for launch was crazy expensive.

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Despite all the shortcoming of the Shuttle program, it marked a huge technical achievement. The complexity of all the systems that had to work together for a successful mission was really amazing and ultimately, I believe, made NASA a stronger agency. However, I think that for political reasons the Shuttle program was maintained longer than it should have. We need to move forward with a newer, and simpler, manned space program. Even though I have trashed commercial ventures like Space-X in the past, they have demonstrated a growing capacity to be able to step in and offer new cargo and crew launch options. I think the future of NASA’s manned space program should be all about diversity — in a decade I anticipate there will be a number of options for putting someone into orbit. It was a bad idea to rely on a single launch platform like the Shuttle, so I hope we move away from that model.

Add comment July 16th, 2011

Evolution Explained

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Add comment October 2nd, 2010

Intergalactic Planetary, Planetary Intergalactic

Unless your cave dwelling in Afghanistan doesn’t have the internets, you have probably heard about the planet in a nearby solar system that could possibly harbor life. For years, astronomers have searched for earth-like worlds in what’s called the “goldilocks zone”, meaning a planet that’s not too close or too far away from its sun. This newly discovered planet, awkwardly named Gliese 581g, is about 20 light years from Earth, which is super close in space terms. Still, it’s too far away for humans to ever reach in our lifetime. But I wonder if anyone has thought about some long term autonomous mission to this far off world yet? Even if we sent a probe to investigate, it could take a couple centuries to get there. That brings up all sorts of questions, like how do you design and build a power supply that would work that long? And how do you construct a delicate and complex machine to survive such a long journey with prolonged exposure to radiation and  micro meteoroids? Once the probe reaches its destination, it would also need some kind of artificial intelligence (AI) to determine proper orbit and the like. The on board AI would also need to make decisions about how the planet would be studied and what data should be transmitted back to earth (which wouldn’t reach us for another 20 years). Of course you could always include large telescopes in the payload package that would allow us to study the star system long before the probe reach it. Even if the probe failed in the last stages of the mission, the deep space data would likely be worth the effort.

The only practical deep space concepts from NASA I’ve seen are ones designed to study the interstellar regions just outside of our solar system. I’ve never seen detailed plans for a probe designed to travel to another solar system (other than rough concepts for nuclear powered crafts from interplanetary societies dating back to the ‘60s and a few really out there newer ones like Project Icarus). But even if we could design a probe that travels just one-tenth the speed of light, it would still take 220 years to reach Gliesse 581g. Of course our current propulsion technology does not offer anything that could get us to one-tenth the speed of light, so we would have to develop something pretty revolutionary. The other thing I thought about was slowing such a fast moving probe down once it reached this new solar system. I suppose that’s where the AI would come into play again. Once the probe reached the destination star system, it would have to calculate and execute a maneuver that would put it into a stable orbit around Gliese 581g. While the obstacles to creating and deploying a probe to this new planet are formidable, I would love to see scientists and engineer at least brainstorming hardware/software concepts — even if they are totally far fetched.

Add comment October 2nd, 2010

Constellation Program = RIP

The Obama administration recently pulled the plug on NASA’s Space Shuttle replacement plan, commonly referred to as the Constellation Program (CxP). This was a half baked concept hatched by the Bush administration a couple of years ago. CxP is also something I’ve been a critic of since its inception. However, now that the program has been mercifully euthanized, I do feel a tinge of sadness seeing all the great hardware headed to the scrap heap. Again, this is just another example of the old Bush administration’s mind-boggling ineptitude. CxP really lacked innovation from the start, which would have been critical for sustained momentum. To the casual observer, the program seemed quaint. It was often dubbed “Apollo on steroids” by Bush officials, which didn’t help the wow factor either. But what really sank the program was ballooning cost. Bush sold the program as an economical replacement to the current Space Shuttle; however overruns quickly started to spiral out of control once the project was under way. Before I go any further, I should point out what CxP actual consisted of:

  • Ares I (rocket)
  • Ares V (rocket)
  • Orion (crew capsule)
  • Earth Departure Stage (EDS)
  • Altair (lunar lander)

The Ares I rocket was designed to carry the Orion capsule into orbit while the Ares V was intended to carry the Altair and EDS. The Ares I had already been successfully tested by the time the program was canceled, but many of the other CxP components were still being developed when everything got axed. So how will NASA get our astronauts into orbit once the shuttle is retired? For the short term, NASA will have to rely on Russia for rides into orbit. Of course the hope is Elon Musk’s SpaceX will eventually be ready to put their Dragon crew capsule and Falcon rocket into service, but as I’ve written before on this blog, I’m skeptical SpaceX will ever be able to pull this off. It’s too bad we can salvage the Orion component of the program and develop that to completion. I think if we modify the Delta IV Heavy rocket in parallel to a scaled down Orion program, we would have a decent shuttle replacement. Of course with Federal deficits being what they are these days, my predictions are NASA will not have a manned space in five years simply because all the options, including using private firms, will simply be too expensive.

Add comment February 18th, 2010

The Great Influenza of 1918

As the current swine flu outbreak moves closer to a full-blown pandemic, now seems like a good time to reflect upon a forgotten chapter in modern history: the flu pandemic of 1918. While often referred to as the Spanish Influenza or The Great Influenza, the origins of the 1918 H1N1 flu strain are not fully known, but some have theorized it originated in Kansas. The 1918 outbreak was especially deadly as pandemics go, killing anywhere from 20 to 50 million worldwide. It spread quickly, partly because of the First World War and all the soldiers moving en mass between and across continents. The 1918 flu also had a high infection rate — around 50 percent — and the symptoms were severe, caused by something called a cytokine storm, where too many immune cells are activated in a single place causing a positive feedback loop (basically an overreaction of the body’s immune system). This is why the 1918 pandemic was so deadly for the young and healthy. The current swine flu is eerily similar, striking down the young folks rather than the elderly.

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What made the 1918 pandemic so startling was the speed to fatality, the seasonal disconnect (summer and fall instead of winter), and the fact that healthy individuals were more likely to died from infection. Another oddity of this strain of flu was the severity of symptoms. One of the first signs of illness was an usual blue tint to the victims face. Death would often come quickly after massive amounts of fluid built up the victim’s lungs, causing them to drown. Others still suffered from violent diarrhea, resulting in fatal blood loss. All and all, the 1918 flu rivaled such modern day viruses like Ebola in general nastiness.

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One of the major differences between the 1918 and the 2009 pandemic is governmental response. In 1918, governments around the world took few steps to warn citizens. In the US, the feds downplayed the threat because people were already stressed about our entry into WWI. Few actions, like isolating the infected, were taken to minimize the spread. In fact some steps the government took actually exacerbated the problem — like the massive army recruitment drives bring thousands of young, healthy men together. The 1918 outbreak is also referred to as the forgotten pandemic by historians, since few Americans have any knowledge of it. This has often been attributed to the fact that a disproportionate number of victims were young adults and because of the rapid spread. The pandemic was also overshadowed by WWI and the horrors that war produced.

The American Experience | Influenza 1918
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/influenza

Add comment May 1st, 2009

Skylab: More Than a Punch Line

It’s 1979 and the sky is falling. Well actually, standing out on the playground during recess, I’m watching and waiting for the United States’ first space station to come streaking into the atmosphere. Long the butt jokes, the reality is Skylab provided a wealth of scientific knowledge. Skylab’s birth can be traced all the way back to the late ‘50s when Wernher von Braun floated the idea of reusing rocket boosters as space stations. The concept involved filling a rocket’s upper stage with propellant and once it reached orbit, any remaining fuel would be vented into space leaving a (theoretically) habitable interior. But NASA didn’t really become interested in von Braun’s idea until they found out the Air Force was designing their own space station, the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL), in the mid ‘60s. The MOL was a strange and highly classified beast based around the Gemini space capsule and Titan II rocket. Compared to von Braun’s elegantly engineered design, the MOL looked hacked together. Air Force astronauts would have to awkwardly squeeze themselves through a small airlock at the back of the Gemini capsule into the slender MOL cylinder that would serve as the living and workspace for the duration of a surveillance mission.

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The MOL program ended up on the chopping block in 1969 when high quality spy satellites imagery made a manned orbital spy station redundant. But with the election of Richard Nixon and the elimination of the last couple of Apollo moon missions, von Braun’s space station idea was fast tracked. NASA now had surplus Apollo and Saturn equipment on hand, so designing and implementing a space station was much easier than it had been in the mid ‘60s. Because NASA had extra Saturn V rockets lying around, there was no need to fill a station full of fuel to get it into orbit – payload weight restrictions were now pretty flexible and designers could think big. And they did, calling on Raymond Loewy to assist in the design. The resulting space station was positively spacious with separated living and working spaces.

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Skylab was launched into orbit in 1973. Unfortunately, there were immediate technical problems. A sun shield failed to deploy and the one of the solar “wings” didn’t extend. This presented to serious issues: 1. without the sunshield, the station’s interior would become dangerously hot 2. without the second set of solar panels, the station would not have adequate power. The first crew of astronauts to visit Skylab had the daunting task of making repairs during risky spacewalks. But after much effort, the damage was fixed and the station was ready to be occupied.

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A total of three mission to Skylab took place (include the first one to make repairs). Astronauts faced a grueling science schedule, studying everything from microgravity to the corona of the sun. This brutal schedule lead to a revolt among the astronauts, who often had little time to even eat meals due to the regimented work routine ground controllers kept them on. Fed up with being worked like dogs, the astronauts stopped performing science experiments until NASA cut back on the number of assigned tasks. Of course this was an important lesson – later missions to Russia’s MIR and the International Space Station would have downtime built into the mission schedules to help maintain a healthy work environment in space.

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So why did Skylab fall from the sky in 1979? When the station was originally conceived, there was the assumption that the United States would have a space shuttle to service it. And the space shuttle was designed and built to service a space station, which needs refueling for its thrusters from time to time to remain in orbit. The great irony of Skylab is the shuttle didn’t fly until 1981, two years after the space station fell from orbit due to neglect. But Skylab laid the foundation for future NASA missions to MIR in the ’90s and the ISS today - even though little credit is given to this forgotten first space station.

1 comment October 20th, 2008

Modern Wonder: The R-7 Semyorka

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Unlike mid-century American rocket celebrity Wernher von Braun, the brains behind the Soviet space program was a mysterious figure simply referred to as the “Chief Designer”. The mystery man was actually Ukrainian born Sergei Korolev, a political prisoner during Stalin’s Great Purge of the late ’30s. It is remarkable Korolev ever had the opportunity to design rockets, let alone dream up his masterpiece the R-7, since he nearly died in the Siberian prison system known as the Gulag Archipelago. Although trained as an aircraft designer with several gliders under his belt, Korolev’s real skill was planning – and his visionary passion for space travel. While Korolev didn’t posses von Braun’s technical aptitude, he could identify and execute a good idea. And by scouring the technical journals of the west, picking the brains of Soviet rocket experts, and sifting through the remnants of the Nazi V-2 program, Korolev was able to devise a rocket that was years ahead of anything the west was developing. This rocket was called the R-7 Semyorka and its descendents are still in use to this day, transporting people and cargo to the International Space Station.

What made the R-7 Semyorka so revolutionary was its use of technology considered by the west as impractical – like steering motors instead of control vanes and separate strap-on rocket boosters. Like von Braun, Korolev also recognized one of the major shortcomings of the V-2 design was the use of internal fuel tanks, which added additional weight. Instead, the R-7 used the body of the rocket as a fuel tank, increasing the amount of fuel that could be carried and reducing the overall weight of the rocket.

But all of the revolutionary design features also translated into a difficult testing phase for the R-7. The whole world saw the launch pad failures of von Braun’s Redstone rocket, but nobody outside of the Soviet top leadership circle knew about the frighteningly high R-7 failure rate. Many of the misfires were eventually traced back to small issues, like improper wiring or forgotten parts – not design flaws. Once the vodka rations were cut back and more stringent quality control enforced, the program started to look promising. After hearing the American’s planned to orbit a satellite by 1957, Korolev lobbied the Soviet leadership for a chance to beat the Yanks. Up to this point, the R-7 had been designed as an ICBM, but work now commenced to modify the design to deliver a satellite into orbit. The satellite, called PS-1 or Sputnik 1, was a simple affair consisting only of a basic 1-watt radio transmitter producing the famous Sputnik “beep”. But despite its small stature, Sputnik made history by being the first man made object to reach orbit around the earth.

The reliability of R-7 allowed for a number of other firsts, like the first space dog, the first object to travel to the moon, and of course the first human into space. All these firsts took a toll on Korolev though, as he increasingly felt like he needed to constantly sing for his supper. Unlike the United States, where all space related activities were coordinated by one agency, NASA, the Soviets funded a multitude of competing programs. Money was often allocated on the basis of political connections rather than technical merits. Korolev was famous for being difficult and independent, which hurt his funding prospects going into the ‘60s. After hearing Kennedy’s speech about putting an American on the moon by the end of the decade, Korolev began to plan for a Soviet program that would do the same. Unfortunately, he had a hard time securing support for engine design and was unable to develop a rocket that would match von Braun’s Saturn V and its mighty F-1 engines. Korolev died in 1966 of a heart attack and the Soviet moon mission died a couple of years later from neglect and lack of funding. But the R-7 lives on in its various incarnations, still rocketing people and payloads into the heavens.

Vostok-1 Launch (first human in space)
http://www.youtube.com

1 comment August 6th, 2008

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