Monthly Archives: March 2008

Arthur C. Clarke Passed

Arthur C. Clark has passed away yesterday at age ninety of breathing trouble. I feel a sense of loss much like I did when Isaac Asimov died in 1992, and that seems like just yesterday.

Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov are two people who, through their writings, instilled a sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe that has stayed with me through the decades. There were only a handful of people who affected my view of the world more; and the others were people I knew personally.

I hope that some day we can stop fighting over power, wealth, and limited resources and realize the potential that I believe Arthur saw in the human race and I still believe exists. However, to realize such a future, it takes thinkers and visionaries and I don’t know how we are going to be able to teach our children to think and feel and be open to the possibilities the universe has for us when we have television, politicians, and fifteen second sound bytes to contend with.

The Expanding Solar System

When I was in high school we knew about nine planets in our solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto.

Since that time it was discovered that Pluto had a moon, Charon, about half the size of Pluto (1170km verses Pluto 2270km) and really could be considered a double planet system. Two more moons of Pluto were discovered in Hubble images, but they are tiny, between 60-200km in diameter.

Ceres which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, discovered in 1801, was considered to be an asteroid, but with a diameter of 950km, a spherical form, and differentiated core and mantle, it really shares characteristics that normally would be attributed to a planet.

Vesta, about 538km in diameter, also orbits between Mars and Jupiter, and has a basaltic surface indicating that it once had lava flows and a molten core. It has many features resembling our moon and the terrestrial planets.

Then there is Eris, originally 2003 UB313, slightly larger than Pluto at about 2500km in diameter, and on an orbit that is more elliptical. At it’s closest approach (280 years from now), it’s orbit takes it just inside of Pluto’s orbit, but presently it is about 2.6 times further out. The spectrum of light reflected off of Eris is nearly identical to that of Pluto, suggesting a surface largely made up of frozen methane, but Eris is more reflective. Eris has a moon, Dysnomia, estimated to be about 150km in diameter. I preferred Xena and Gabrielle myself, but the IAU had to ruin that.

Quaoar is about 1250km in diameter and has a similar orbit but with an inclination almost opposite that of Plutos relative to the orbits of the major planets. Part of Quaoar’s orbit brings it inside the orbit of Pluto and part of the time it is outside of Pluto’s orbit. The orbit of Pluto is in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune, but this is not the case with Quaoar. While Pluto and Eris have relatively high albedos (reflectivity) of .68 and .86 respectively, Quaoar is very dark with an albedo of only .1 suggesting less surface ice.

Orcas has a diameter of about 1600km, and has an orbit almost identical to Pluto. Like Pluto, it has a 3:2 resonance with Neptunes orbit, and nearly the same degree of eccentricity as Pluto. The diameter of Orcas isn’t known precisely yet because it’s albedo has not been precisely determined.

Varuna, orbiting at a distance of approximately 43 AU, is believed to have a diameter of around 900km. It is not very reflective with an albedo of only .07 indicating very little surface frost.

Ixion has an orbit very similar to Plutos, but where Plutos perihelion (the point in it’s orbit closest the sun) is above the ecliptic, Ixion’s is below. Like Pluto and Orcus, Ixion is in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune. It’s diameter is estimated at 800km, and albedo at .15. It has a reddish color.

2003 EL61 is undoubtedly one of the strangest objects out there, it is cigar or egg shaped even though it’s length is nearly 2000km, it has not collapsed to a spherical state like other similarly sized and even much smaller bodies have. 2003 EL61 also has two moons, one approximately 300km in diameter and one approximately 150km in diameter.

In addition to the large asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, there are numerous objects between the orbits of the gas giants, most of them have diameters of 200km or less, and then many objects out in the vicinity of Pluto in the Kuiper belt, the major ones noted above, there is now believed to be hundreds, thousands, and perhaps even tens of thousands of minor planets in the Oort cloud, a spherical region of space extending about a light year from the Sun. Based on statistical analysis it is believed that there may be as many as a dozen frozen Earth sized objects in this region and perhaps even some gas giants. There is some speculation that there may even be a brown dwarf solar companion out in this vast region.

I find the whole situation very fascinating. We, humanity, if Bush doesn’t go and invade Iran and start WW III, are very close to harnessing hydrogen fusion. With such an abundant source of energy at our disposal, we might be able to thaw some of these distant worlds and make them livable.

Prior to knowing these worlds existed, I had dreams of traveling to minor planets in our solar system that were in the process of being terraformed. In my dreams they were at a state where there was an atmosphere that was breathable but not ideal, where the temperature was survivable but less than ideal, and where it was possible to grow food crops but other than cultivated vegetation the land was largely barren.

Now with the 7th (and last before a commercial level power reactor for naval propulsion) Bussard polywell reactor is built and in the processes of being tested, with the discovery of all of these minor planets, this no longer seems like an impossibility.

The density of these minor planets often lies between that of ice and dirt suggesting a mixture of the two. I wonder how long it would take to defrost these small planets sufficiently to grow something. There is a hint that some of these may already contain liquid interior oceans due to tidal forces or the decay of radioactive elements.

If there are tens of thousands of these objects and they extend a quarter of the way to the nearest star, then there is a lot of real estate available to advanced civilizations. There is some evidence that advanced civilizations may have arisen on Earth in the past and I can’t help but wonder if some of these distant minor planets might already be colonized by our ancestors.

Ionosphere, Magnetosphere, Earth

I have had an interest in radio all of my life and things which affect the propagation of radio signals. One of the most significant things that affects the propagation of many radio frequencies is a portion of the Earth’s atmosphere known as the ionosphere which is an area high enough up that shorter wavelength ultraviolet and even shorter wavelength radiation strips electrons from atoms and the atmosphere is tenuous enough that they don’t immediately recombine.

I find it fascinating in ways that go beyond it’s effect on radio propagation. I’ve always had a fascination with the plasma state of matter. I had a particular fondness for arcs and sparks and things you could do with high voltage since my early teens that has not abated, though time to pursue that interest is hard to come by.

Plasma, doesn’t act the same way a normal gas does, the way charged particles interact with magnetic field lines produces an array of behaviors that at times seem organic. Anyone who has observed an auroral display will have some understanding of this. Even though I live at a latitude that is far enough south that strong auroral displays are relatively rare (just north of Seattle), I’ve seen them maybe half a dozen times here and every time I’ve seen them they’ve been different.

One display I saw consisted of a single narrow stream of light that went from the northwest to the southeast. It appeared white in color, it was a narrow concentrated beam that looked like a giant neon, or more properly argon, light across the sky, except that it wriggled about and was full of kinks and bends instead of being straight. It lasted about ten minutes then diffused and faded. I have seen many pictures of auroras, but never saw one like that.

Another one that I saw looked as if you had taken a point light source, shined it off of ocean waves, and projected it onto a giant screen in the sky, the waves moving like ocean waves in real time.

I’ve also seen the more typical displays, the green sheets, patches of red, but seeing it in real time, seeing the motion, gives it a whole different character than looking at a static photograph.

I’ve had the sense that something has been changing for a long time. I get this both from my experience with a hobby of radio and TV DX’ing, and from the aurora. I’ve lived in this area all of my 49 years, but almost all of those auroral displays I’ve seen on the last five years.

This last solar cycle was the most intense on record. That in part accounted for the frequency and intensity of displays recently. The solar cycle is something that historically does change from cycle to cycle. There are periods in history where there have been very few or no visible sunspots, and there have been periods of high solar activity. This last cycle was the most active on record; but at the same time there are other factors.

Cosmic rays also have been on the rise; nobody seems to know why but the average cosmic ray flux has been on the increase in recent years. This two is something that varies and all the factors are not well understood.

One additional factor; the Earth’s magnetic field has been weakening. My understanding is that it has weakened by approximate 50% over the past hundred years. The Earth experiences periodic reversal of the magnetic poles (this is not the same as a physical pole shift, nor has it been associated with mass extinctions or high rates of mutation in the past). We may be headed into a magnetic pole shift; it’s really impossible to say until it happens because sometimes in the past the field has weakened, and then strengthened without reversing.

So we’ve got all these things happening, what does it mean to us? Recently, a study found that there is a correlation between cosmic rays reaching the Earth’s surface and cancer rates; the cancer rates are increased by increased cosmic radiation but there is a 25 year lag between the higher cosmic rays and higher cancer rates. So one thing it means to us is that as more cosmic rays bombard the Earth and more reach the Earth’ surface, 25 years later we’ll see increased cancer.

A greater danger is that to our satellites upon which we are dependent. There is a minor pole in the southern Pacific, that is a magnetic pole that is opposite in polarity to the main south pole, known as the southern Pacific anomaly. At times recently, this has become almost as strong as the main south pole. The Earth’s magnetic field tends to sweep up cosmic rays and particles from the Sun and direct them to enter the atmosphere at altitudes above the Arctic Circle.

On average, the latitude at which cosmic rays enter the atmosphere has decreased by seven degrees over the last 100 years. All of the above factors probably play some role.

I believe the following changes will occur as these changes continue:

We will experience more disruptions in long distance AC power transmission lines. A fix for this that would simultaneously upgrade transmission capacity making it possible to use higher mix of renewables would be to convert lines longer than 300km or so to DC transmission. Only long lines are subject to induction of low frequency currents that destroy transformers. Only the longer lines have significant AC power loses. And DC transmission becomes more economical than AC transmission on lines longer than 300km, so it makes sense to convert only these longer lines.

We will see a high failure rate of our satellites when they appear outside of the regions presently protected by the Earth’s magnetosphere. Already we are seeing this with satellites that go over the Southern Pacific anomaly. There are a number of steps we could take to partially mitigate this effect. We can rely more on terrestrial fiber optics and terrestrial wireless for communications. We can take steps to harden our satellites against radiation. This can include the use of special integrated circuits that have higher radiation tolerances, shielding, and equipping the satellite with it’s own magnetosphere in the form of strong superconductive magnets that deflect high energy charged particles. We can use more redundancy. One area that I feel will be particularly troublesome is the loss of global positioning satellites which we have become so dependent upon for navigation during a time when we also will not be able to depend upon a simple compass.

We will see weather anomalies caused by changes in high level cloud cover and by heating of the upper atmosphere. Cosmic rays entering the atmosphere leave an ionized trial in their wake that serve as a nucleus for condensation encouraging cloud formation. Cosmic rays can also significantly heat and expand the atmosphere. These effects will alter our weather in some ways that are hard to predict.

Radio propagation will be further impacted. We will see increased absorption at lower radio frequencies limiting the range of medium wave signals, increasing atmospheric noise at these frequencies, but higher shortwave frequencies will become usable and we will see the maximum usable frequency rise into the VHF bands more frequently. The highest I have ever seen the MUF rise to was around 200 Mhz, but I expect that we will see new record high MUF’s with noticeable defraction perhaps extending all the way into the visible light portion of the spectrum.

I believe we should be preparing for these changes by fortifying our energy supplies with renewables that we can utilize without causing further problems, so that we have the ability to adapt to changes that come our way.

Another Approach to Aneutronic Fusion

I ran across this article in Progressive Engineer by Eric Lerner entitled, “Stop the Suppression of an Alternative Energy Source!” and discovered that there is yet another potential fusion technology that I have been totally unaware of.

This isn’t my first encounter with writing by Eric Lerner. Years ago, I read a book he authored entitled, “The Big Bang Never Happened”. While not perfect, it was a very well written book that provided an alternative to big bang cosmology which I believe is much more consistent with observation than big bang cosmology.

Being familiar with this, I know Eric Lerner to be both capable of thinking outside the box as well as just thinking. This article gives some insight as to how these technologies are squelched.

Calculator Edge

I heard about an interesting site for those who might either be math challenged or lazy, it’s called Calculator Edge, and basically it’s like having a programmable calculator with a whole bunch of formula for various applications pre-programmed in so all you have to do is punch in the numbers.

Be careful though, I did find some of the formulas are broken, particularly at extremes.