Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cosmic Irony

A week or so ago I sorely tempted the Powers-That-Be in Blogspace by making the comment that “hurricanes were at an historic low” as “the seas are cooling” during one of my periodic rants on global warming. That MUST have been particularly annoying to the great storm planners. Hence, tomorrow afternoon, Ernesto – tropical storm or hurricane – will pass DIRECTLY over the top of my house. We have lived in Florida for nearly 20 years and never had a direct hit… until now.
The lesson in all of this is: watch carefully what you rant about. While the passage of Ernesto over the top of my house has little to do with the argument, I can just feel the irrepressible hot breath of cosmic irony breathing hotly down my neck, even now.
The good news is that I have always wanted to see the eye of such a storm. Tomorrow appears to be the day for that – like from my front yard. If FEMA allows computer drops in emergency housing, I’ll let you know what it was like.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Planetary Matters

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney NSW

The eggheads of the IAU have come up with a definition of a planet that's completely scrambled. Lets have a look at it in more detail. The resolution said:

The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:

(1) A planet1 is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A dwarf planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects3 orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar System Bodies".

So “dwarf planets” are not planets. But if thats the case why call them “planets”? It makes no sense. Astronomers call some small stars dwarfs but a red dwarf is as much a star as a red giant.

The problem with Pluto seems to be it has company. It has not “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.” This makes me wonder about the personal issues these people have, but lets leave that aside for the moment. How clear do orbits have to be? Some asteroids come close to Earth after all and Pluto's orbit crosses Neptune's.

Then there is Sedna. A few years ago astronomers found a little world way past the Kuiper Belt called Sedna. Its about 80-1100 miles in diameter and appears to be round. It might be part of the the inner Oort Cloud but we don't know that. Nothing else has been found that far yet. So by the IAU's current definition Sedna should be a planet.

There a likely to be more round objects past Pluto and Xena. What happens if the Oort Cloud is confirmed and they find objects as big and round as Mercury or Mars? They can hardly call them dwarf planets.

The whole mess arises because astronomers refused to accept that the definition of a planet is as much cultural and historic as scientific, yet they were themselves limited by those same cultural requirements. In my view the original proposal made sense, it was to accept all round objects orbiting the Sun as planets but that would have given us potentially dozens of planets. They rejected that proposal but why? We don't worry about the number of stars or islands so why should planets be any different? They felt uncomfortable because everyone is used to having a relatively small number of planets so they rebelled against the original proposal.

A simple solution would be to call the nine traditional planets some thing like the Classical Planets or Original Nine and accept the rest as new planets no matter their size or the company they keep.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Planet X-ed

As I write this, the universe as we “understand” it is radically different than it was yesterday. Yesterday, there were nine planets in the family of our solar system and potentially four more. As of an hour ago, there are now eight. The International Astronomical Union voted that Pluto was no longer to be considered a “planet”, and that; instead, it is considered but a “dwarf planet”. What used to be known as PLANET X just became PLANET X-ed.

I just sat through two hours of the very IAU meeting in which this was decided - including the vote and discussion for this decision - by internet streaming from Prague. It was frustrating, to say the least to watch how history was changed and made – by committee.

To say not everyone was happy about that vote is an understatement. Here are some samples of the remarks by planetary astronomers worldwide:
“An embarrassment for Astronomy. The vote is a farce.” Alan Stern, NASA.
“Pluto is dead.” Caltech Astronomer Mike Brown
“Confusing and unfortunate.” Owen Gingerich, historian and astronomer emeritus at Harvard
Stern then added that it was "absurd" that only 424 astronomers were allowed to vote, out of some 10,000 professional astronomers around the globe.
Now that there is so much furor caused by booting out a long standing member of the Solar System’s family, a petition is now being organized among world astronomers to invite Pluto and Charon back as soon as possible… especially since we just sent a family greeting by robot emissary that won’t even get there until 2010.
As far as Pluto Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh is concerned – he passed away before he could get the word. But there must be some rumblings from the grave after today.
As far as what we’re going to do with every textbook on the planet – that’s a different story. And for heaven’s sake – don’t rewrite them. If the Astronomer’s posse is formed, it may be back the way it was by this time next year. I can bet any amount of money that the applications for membership in the IAU just increased by a factor of 10 or more.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

World Record Dive

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney, NSW

I almost missed this story but a major advance in deep sea exploration has been made. The first dive down to 2000 feet. The article is from The hardsuit was built by the Canadian company Oceanworks.

MV Kellie Chouest, At Sea - A Navy diver submerged 2,000 feet, setting a record using the new Atmospheric Diving System (ADS) suit, off the coast of La Jolla, Calif., Aug. 1.
Chief Navy Diver (DSW/SS) Daniel P. Jackson of Navy Reserve Deep Submergence Unit (DSU) was randomly selected to certify the ADS suit for use by the Navy.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” said Jackson. “I am honored and privileged to be the first diver to go down to that depth.”
The certification was the culmination of 11 years of planning, designing and testing by multiple agencies to develop the ADS suit, also known as the Hardsuit 2000.
“This is the biggest piece of teamwork that I have ever seen in the Navy,” said Cmdr. Keith W. Lehnhardt, the officer in charge of the project.
Lehnhardt said the project was a collaboration of so many different organizations, such as DSU, Submarine Squadron 5 and Diving Systems Support Detachment.
Jackson said, “I was just a guy tied to a rope. It was the ADS team that made it all possible. They were incredible.”
Developed by OceanWorks International from Vancouver, British Columbia, the Hardsuit 2000 was designed to withstand underwater pressure at 2,000 feet. Current models have only been able to go down as far as 1,200 feet. “The suit worked incredibly,” said Jackson. “It did everything it was intended to do. I always heard that around 1,300 feet, the joints of the Hardsuit 2000 would work even better, and it worked exactly the way they said it would.”
Meeting the Navy’s high safety requirements, the ADS suit was designed and acquired by the Navy to support submarine rescue.
“Its specific purpose is to be part of the advance assessment system during a submarine rescue operation,” said Lehnhardt. “The diver in the suit will see what the damage to the sub is and find out where the survivors might be.”
“At 2,000 feet, I had topside turn off all the lights, and it was like a star show. The phosphorescence that was naturally in the water and in most of the sea life down there started to glow," Jackson said. "When I started to travel back up, all the lights looked like a shower of stars going down as I was coming up. It was the best ride in the world.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Real Planetary Mess

The proposal to identify what is defined as a “planet” has leaked:

"A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet."

I have cut and pasted part of the article here. Otherwise, you can click to and read it in detail on their site.

The final plan it seems is riddled with odd inconsistencies and contradictions to logic. Oh well – who said you could run a universe by committee anyway? When you do, then you get what you get.

======= From

The tally of planets in our solar system would jump instantly to a dozen under a highly controversial new definition proposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Eventually there would be hundreds as more round objects are found beyond Neptune. The proposal, which sources tell is gaining broad support, tries to plug a big gap in astronomy textbooks, which have never had a definition for the word "planet." It addresses discoveries of Pluto-sized worlds that have in recent years pitched astronomers into heated debates over terminology.

The asteroid Ceres, which is round, would be recast as a dwarf planet in the new scheme. Pluto would remain a planet and its moon Charon would be reclassified as a planet. Both would be called "plutons," however, to distinguish them from the eight "classical" planets.

A far-out Pluto-sized object known as 2003 UB313 would also be called a pluton. That would make Caltech researcher Mike Brown, who found 2003 UB313, formally the discoverer of the 12th planet. But he thinks it's a lousy idea.

"It's flattering to be considered discoverer of the 12th planet," Brown said in a telephone interview. He applauded the committee's efforts but said the overall proposal is "a complete mess." By his count, the definition means there are already 53 known planets in our solar system with countless more to be discovered.

Brown and other another expert said the proposal, to be put forth Wednesday at the IAU General Assembly meeting in Prague, is not logical. For example, Brown said, it does not make sense to consider Ceres and Charon planets and not call our Moon (which is bigger than both) a planet.

IAU members will vote on the proposal Thursday, Aug. 24. Its fate is far from clear.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Will They Decide This Week?

Starting today in Czech Republic capital of Prague, the International Astronomical Union will finally (hopefully) get together decide on the definition of a planet. This will certainly gratify millions of teachers around the world who presently cannot truthfully answer to a first grader how many planets there are in the solar system or even what a planet is!
While this may sound like pulp fiction – sadly it is not. The world’s crop of best planetary scientists have been arguing over this for years, but now that there are several new “objects” being discovered orbiting around our sun each year, someone has finally got to decide.
The meeting should be exciting (at least as exciting as any meeting of astronomers go). Here they will finally decide on the fate of poor Pluto who while having the honor of being a planet for nearly a century may well leave the meeting with that title stripped. Poor thing may be reduced to being tagged as a mere “orbiting ice ball” as some have threatened. Or, it may be “grandfathered” in as a planet to keep from confusing everybody, while all other Pluto type objects will hereafter be named the lesser category.
As far as I’m concerned, this all sounds like so much earth-like prejudice and big-guy pandering. So it seems that we earth-type planets are all big and bad and rocky - but it doesn’t mean that our lesser planets in the sol family are any less unique, all in their own style. Look at it this way, if the astronomers of the gas giants such as Jupiter, Pluto, Saturn and Uranus all met, I’m certain Earth’s own fate as a planet would be in some serious question. Then we’d all be sitting around trying to figure out what we could do to the place to make us more appealing and get our dignity and title back. Don’t laugh. The Plutonians are in that very fix right now.
But, you see Quantum Limit's team of investigative reporter (sic) has discovered the real root of the argument. The world's planetary scientists don't want to name every object discovered a "planet" because that would require as planetary professionals that they memorize them all - in correct order with distances and complete stats - or wind up look like bungling fools. They all look at a list of 54 planets with wide and fearful eyes and tremble in their tight sneakers. Now you know!
Of course, Quantum Limit will keep you appraised on what happens in Prague this week.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Mars as the Everest of Space

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney, NSW

One of my daily reads is They track mountaineers, polar adventurers, long distance solo sailors etc. If you want to know what explorers are getting up to its a good place to start. Their reporter attended this years Mars conference and has been posting articles with the unique view of a true explorer. Below is a large extract from the final post. Its very much my view on exploration. You can read the rest here.

...There are many to please and tough questions to answer. Isn't humanity's greatest mission to reproduce? What good will space travels do us? Shouldn't we solve our own problems first? The Universe seem to favor usefulness and being great in bed might not be valid enough (just ask the Dinosaurs). Zubrin pointed out that as for solving earth problems; Spain had lots of problems in the 1500s - and still do. According to this engineer, the biggest spin-off of the space program is educated minds. The biggest risk of the space program lies in not doing it.

Death by exploration

As explorers, we know that there is a positive side to "death-by-exploration." Just as there is a positive twist to terrible events such as firefighters dying in 9/11. Heroic deaths display the amazing courage and spirituality hidden deep within our souls.

To explorers, risk assessment made out as a percentage is of little value when it comes to uncharted territory such as a Mars mission. To us, as once to Columbus, the correct approach is to work out a set of "worst-case-scenarios." Each scenario is then solved, avoided or covered with a back-up until the threat feels manageable.

The Mars Society conference showed that this is very much doable in a Mars mission - we have the tools. So why are we not going?

"We must do it not because it's easy - but because it's difficult" Kennedy said. This resolve put us on the moon. Today - rather than choosing the road less traveled - survival, comfort and reproduction are on top of our list. Dads or (worse) mothers who die on exploration are considered reckless and selfish. We want a safe summit so we choose to be guided in commercial outfits, rather than risk failure (or heaven forbid - death!) in independent expeditions.

The spirit of Mount Everest

"We must do it not because it's easy - but because it's difficult" Kennedy said and we nod our heads in approval, while we grab another donut and hope our kids will become smart and good looking rather than courageous and visionary. Cleverness and sharp looks won't be enough to go to Mars though. Stats show that in spite of our best intentions, we are turning into real pussies:

18 different routes have been climbed on Mount Everest. While the North Col and South Col routes are similar in technical difficulty, the other 16 routes are more difficult and dangerous. In spite of the considerable evolution that has taken place in terms of gear, weather forecasting and infrastructure knowledge - the technically more challenging climbs have almost vanished - from 26% 1953-1980, down to 5% in the 90s and 1% during the millennium.

When it comes to space - the biggest buzz is putting wealthy people in low orbit and returning to the moon in 2020. The reason we don't go to Mars is much more sobering than any technological challenge. As Griffin put it, "we have confined ourselves to the lower altitude."

Although we can reach the stars, we don't try. What's the point?, we ask. The point is that in its desperate quest to survive, the human spirit is dying. Mars needs not the wealthy magnates, the smart engineers, the famous actors, or even the good Christians. Mars needs men and women to match its mountains.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Aussie Genius

The Aussie spirit has always impressed me. That’s precisely why I ask a son of Australia, Ralph Buttigieg to represent me when I’m away. Those guys know how to explore, they understand the spirit of exploration and they are natural frontiersmen. And just to prove their genius and their mettle, in steps an Australian Project that is so ingenious, I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real. And it is!
Not too long ago Claudia and I stood in the heart (or near the heart) of a one gigawatt nuclear power plant. Yes – giga with a “g”. One could almost feel the power zipping in the air all around you.
And while I have never been accused as a former nuclear engineer of being anti-nuke in any form or fashion, I can tell you that nuke plants do have issues. Safety (although statistically they are thousands of time safer than any petroleum power) and waste storage come to mind. But then what else is there? Petroleum is directly responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths. And so on and so forth. Then along come a troop of Aussie Engineers with an answer:
If they build it we will come. Yes we will! And so will everyone else...
Build the tallest manmade structure ever built, one kilometer in height surrounded at its base with solar collectors. The natural convection of the air will rise in the tower. A series of windmill like generators will then store the energy of the air rushing by at 35 mph and generate 200, megawatts – enough to power 200,000 homes.
(It's a SUPER video - but give it time to load. It will work after it is downloaded to your computer.)
Wow – I’m impressed! No fuel. No waste. Only energy for free, powered by the giant fusion reactor positioned safely at 93,000,000 miles in the distance. Now that’s what I call genius, entrepreneurialship and the spirit that makes Australia and he people so awesome!