Monday, April 27, 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

First View of the Dark Side of the Sun

Soon we may get the first ever glimpse of the dark side of the sun.

Well, no, there's no actual dark side of a luminous ball of burning gas, but there is an effective dark side, as in, the side of the sun we can't see at any given time.

Scientists aren't content to get just half of the picture, so they've launched the STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories) mission, a pair of NASA spacecraft that will orbit the sun simultaneously to provide a complete view of all sides of the star at once.

"Then there will be no place to hide and we can see the entire sun for the first time," STEREO project scientist Michael Kaiser of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center told

The perfect spherical view will come on Feb. 6, 2011. Right now the satellites, which were launched in October 2006, are about 90 degrees apart, which allows a picture of about 270 degrees of the sun — the fullest view yet.

"The who goal of all of this is to try to get a better handle to try to predict solar storms, which cause cell phone disturbances, and disruptions to communications and power." Kaiser said. "We'd like to be able to predict these things as far in advance as possible to give us a longer warning time."

Solar storms are magnetic disruptions on the sun that release violent sprays of charged particles into space. These storms can produce magnificent displays of the Northern Lights. But some past storms have also cost airlines and satellite communications industries millions of dollars, and have led to large scale power blackouts (including one across the entire province of Quebec, Canada). Being able to reliably forecast these tempests in advance could make a huge difference in preventing disturbances on Earth.

Predicting solar weather is also important for the future of manned spaceflight. If astronauts are exposed to the intense radiation from solar storms while traveling beyond the protective magnetic field of the Earth, they could suffer serious harm. Even astronauts close to home who venture out for a spacewalk during a storm are put in danger.

"For future missions going to the moon and Mars, that's very important," Kaiser said. "Some of these solar storms can be very intense. If the astronauts were completely exposed to one of these storms the radiation could be high."

The STEREO mission also aims to improve our basic scientific understanding of the dynamics within the sun, which could shed light on the workings of stars in general.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Leonids Meteor Shower Tonight

There’s supposed to be a Leonids Meteor Shower tonight that should be visible to our side of the earth. Some reports call them Leonids and others call them Lyrids. I don’t know which are supposed to be seen tonight or if they are the same things and someone just doesn’t know how to spell it.

Leonids Meteor Shower comes around once a year. They should be visible in the early morning dark hours if the a full moon doesn’t wash out the view. The meteor is the remnants of an ancient comet that is visible as the earth flies through its debris.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Third Reich's Diabolical Orbiting Superweapon

The Third Reich's Diabolical Orbiting Superweapon
Written by Alan Bellows on February 9th, 2008 at 4:19 am

Nazi "Sun Gun"Throughout the Second World War, the town of Hillersleben, Germany was home to one of the Third Reich's most crucial weapons research centers. At a sprawling facility nestled in the forested hills, a contingent of 150 engineers and physicists developed and evaluated all manner of experimental weapons, a substantial number of which were ultimately adopted by the Nazi war machine.

When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the scientists at Hillersleben were forced to abandon an assortment of death-bringing innovations at various stages of completion. Among these were a rocket-assisted artillery shell which had 50% more range than standard artillery, a 600mm mortar which fired one-ton self-propelled projectiles for up to three and a half miles, a modified Tiger tank which could fire 760-pound rockets up to six miles, and a chain-like projectile made up of small, linked rockets with a range of 100 miles. But the military masterminds' most sinister ambitions were embodied in their behemoth Sonnengewehr, or "Sun Gun" project– an orbital weapon intended to exact fiery punishment upon the enemies of the Third Reich, forever establishing their dominance over the genetically inferior Untermenschen of the Earth.

The Sun Gun was based on a design originally conceived by Hermann Oberth, a physicist who is widely credited as one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics. In his 1929 book Wege zur Raumschiffahrt, or "Ways to Spaceflight," Oberth presented a scientific description of a hypothetical manned space station orbiting at an altitude of one thousand kilometers. He detailed potential construction methods using prefabricated sections, described a rotational cycle to produce centrifugal gravity within the station, and outlined a system for periodic resupply missions. Oberth advocated the development of these Raumstations to serve as astronomical observatories and telegraph relays, in addition to Earth-observing activities such as meteorology, search-and-rescue, and military intelligence. What interested the Nazi scientists, however, was his suggestion that a specially engineered 100-meter-wide concave mirror could be used to reflect sunlight into a concentrated point on the Earth. But whereas Oberth's design had peaceful intentions– to use the intense heat to produce electricity with steam turbines– the nefarious Nazis envisioned a colossal heat ray which could vanquish humanity.

Archimedes and one of his death ray mirrorsArchimedes and one of his death ray mirrorsThe Sun Gun concept was essentially a scaled-up version of Archimedes' ancient and oft-debated "Death Ray." In 212 BCE, the Roman Republic sought to seize the city of Syracuse from its Greek inhabitants. Some accounts claim that the initial attack was repelled by Archimedes– the astonishingly talented Greek mathematician, physicist, inventor, and astronomer– who is said to have used an array of sunlight-concentrating copper mirrors to set the advancing ships aflame. Many scientific attempts have been made to confirm or deny the feasibility of such a weapon, with varying outcomes. Most prominently, the myth was "busted" on the television program MythBusters in 2006. The 'Busters found that an array of metal mirrors could indeed ignite a wooden ship, but only after a tactically-tricky exposure of several minutes. Although the authenticity of the ancient legend is questionable, however, the principle behind it is fundamentally sound.

Using Hermann Oberth's 1929 design as a starting point, the optimistic physicists of Hillersleben expanded upon the space-mirror concept considerably. Their calculations indicated a parabolic mirror of at least three square kilometers to achieve the desired destructive power– about 100,000 times larger than Archimedes' mythical death ray– and an ideal orbit of 8,200 kilometers. After considering a number of shiny materials, the scientists settled upon metallic sodium, an element which is relatively abundant among natural compounds. Under ordinary conditions, pure sodium tarnishes quickly and reacts violently to moisture, however the researchers reasoned that these shortcomings would not pose any problem in the virtually vacuous exosphere. To heft the pre-built pieces into orbit, engineers planned to employ a beefed-up version of trailblazing-but-treacherous V-2 rocket which Germany had been using to terrorize London. This "A11" multi-stage variant– which was undergoing development at the V-2 facility in Peenemünde– was designed by Wernher von Braun to deliver people into space, and to export white-hot Nazi shrapnel to the US.

Inside the living area of the station, electricity would be provided by special steam-driven dynamos which would utilize the heat of raw solar radiation. The station's complement of Nazi astronauts would wear magnetic shoes to accommodate working in weightlessness, and their oxygen would be constantly replenished by vast onboard greenhouses filled with CO2-thirsty pumpkin plants. Artist's impression of the assembly process (Life magazine, 1945)Artist's impression of the assembly process (Life magazine, 1945)The crew of a fully-assembled Sun Gun station would receive encoded orders via radio or wireless telegraph, while keeping a sharp eye on enemies of the Reich. When commanded to attack a terrestrial target, the crew would engage a network of rocket thrusters to rotate the massive reflector into a carefully calculated orientation. Once in position, the mirror's curvature would converge the sun's mighty rays into a focal point on the Earth's surface, pouring a column of raw, super-concentrated solar radiation upon the target site. Hypothetically this beam would have sufficient heat to scorch away fields, incinerate cities, vaporize reservoirs, and melt screaming onlookers like wax dummies. Any nation lacking space-capable rockets would be utterly defenseless against the onslaught. Once the desired destruction threshold was reached, the mirror would be tilted back into a safe orientation, facing away from the Earth.

The project was stalled in the summer spring of '45, however, as the impending Allied victory became increasingly evident. American intelligence agencies immediately invoked Operations Overcast and Paperclip to extricate German scientists and equipment ahead of the Soviets. Lieut. Col. John A. Keck, chief of the Ordinance Service's enemy technical intelligence branch in European theater, led the interrogation of a number of Nazi researchers. The German engineers described their participation in the development of the V-2, and disclosed details regarding several other nearly-perfected technologies: a submarine-based V-2 launch system, an infrared sniper scope, and an anti-aircraft rocket capable of auto-detonating within ten yards of a target. In addition, they handed over the schematics and calculations for their formidable Sun Gun concept. Considering the Nazi scientists' other impressive achievements, Lieut. Col. Keck and his team of hard-headed engineers took the death star concept seriously. "We were impressed with their practical engineering minds," Keck said of the Hillersleben researchers, "and their distaste for the fantastic."

Many American scientists, however, were more skeptical Sun Gun's feasibility. Astronomical amounts of time, money, and resources would be required to hoist the hundreds of tons of equipment into orbit, not to mention the million or so tons of metallic sodium. Furthermore, there were doubts regarding whether a single parabolic mirror could concentrate destructive levels of energy upon such a distant focal point; though this problem could be overcome by building multiple Sun Guns to operate as an orchestrated orgy of annihilation. In spite of the monumental scale of the concept, the physicists from Hillersleben were confident that their Sonnengewehr Raumstation was feasible, and that its uninterrupted development could have furnished the Fatherland with global conquest in as little as fifty years.

Solar furnace in Odeillo, FranceSolar furnace in Odeillo, FranceThe weaponization of the sun has still yet to be realized, though similar concepts are used today to collect heat on smaller scales. Solar furnaces use parabolic mirrors provide heat for cooking, electricity, metal-working, and hydrogen production. The largest solar furnace in the world is currently located in the commune of Odeillo in the French Pyrenees mountains, where its eight-story-tall array of 10,000 small mirrors concentrates sunlight to produce temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Celsius. A similar concept is used in solar power towers, where a brigade of mirrors reflect the sun's heat onto a central receiver to produce steam for electricity.

Despite appearances, the Hillersleben researchers were not exclusively sinister. Nestled amongst the heat-ray-of-doom diagrams, scientists included notes describing the space station's potential as a radio-relay satellite, a weather observation post, a launch pad for the interstellar rocket expeditions, and of course, Hermann Oberth's original vision to use the giant mirror to generate electricity on Earth.

Many German rocket scientists– including Oberth and Wernher von Braun– ultimately opted to put science ahead of patriotism, and moved to the US to continue their rocketry research. In addition to their work with US missile defense systems, many of the men went to work for the fledgling space program in the 1950s. The rocket originally slated to carry the Sun Gun segments into space– Von Braun's A11– eventually became the foundation for the Saturn V, the engine which carried the Apollo astronauts into orbit for the moon missions of 1969-1972. It seems that through hard work and perseverance, these pioneers of rocketry finally managed to hit their ultimate goal: The stars. And occasionally, London.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Floating a New Idea For Going Wireless,

Floating a New Idea
For Going Wireless,
Parachute Included
Balloon Launch Gets
Google's Attention;
Dairy Farmers Can Help
February 20, 2008; Page A1

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Jerry Knoblach wants to bring wireless service to millions of rural Americans. His plan: Beam it down from balloons hovering at the edge of space.

This isn't just hot air. His company, Space Data Corp., already launches 10 balloons a day across the Southern U.S., providing specialized telecom services to truckers and oil companies. His balloons soar 20 miles into the stratosphere, each carrying a shoebox-size payload of electronics that acts like a mini cellphone "tower" covering thousands of square miles below.
Cheap, disposable hydrogen-filled balloons carrying miniature versions of cellphone towers may soon provide service to rural, sparsely populated areas. WSJ's Amol Sharma visits Space Data, a company that makes the specialized balloons.

His idea has caught the eye of Google Inc., according to people familiar with the matter. The Internet giant -- which is now pushing into wireless services -- has considered contracting with Space Data or even buying the firm, according to one person.

Mr. Knoblach, Space Data's chief executive, declined to comment on specific partners. Google declined to comment.

Expanding rural telecom services is a priority for regulators. About 36% of rural Americans don't have Internet connections. The problem is that it's expensive to string cable or build cellphone towers in areas with so few customers. Space Data says a single balloon can serve an area otherwise requiring 40 cell towers.

Maintaining a telecom system based on gas-filled bladders floating in the sky requires some creativity. The inexpensive balloons are good for only 24 hours or so before ultimately bursting in the thin air of the upper atmosphere. The electronic gear they carry, encased in a small Styrofoam box, then drifts gently back to earth on tiny parachutes.

This means Space Data must constantly send up new balloons. To do that, it hires mechanics employed at small airports across the South. It also hires farmers -- particularly, dairy farmers.
[Jerry Knoblach]

They're "very reliable people," says Mr. Knoblach. They have to "milk the cows 24-7, 365 days a year, so they're great people to use as a launch crew." Space Data pays them $50 per launch.

Extra Pocket Money

Sharon Hodges, a 60-year-old cattle-and-wheat farmer in Piedmont, Okla., and part-time balloon launcher, says she doesn't know much about technology but liked the extra pocket money.

Every day just before sunset, she unfolds a deflated balloon, attaches it to a hydrogen tank and inflates it to about 6 feet in diameter. Then she hitches the electronic payload to the balloon, walks it through the 16-foot-tall double doors of her barn, and lets go of it.

The balloons rise about 1,000 feet a minute and reach their target altitude of 65,000 to 100,000 feet in under two hours.

Not the Hindenburg

Most of Space Data's balloons are filled with hydrogen, because it is cheaper than the helium used in toy balloons and modern blimps. Hydrogen is, of course, flammable, but Mr. Knoblach says there's no safety issue because each balloon contains so little gas. "It's not like the Hindenburg," he says.
A balloon being launched in Piedmont, Oklahoma.

Mr. Knoblach also dismisses another potential hazard: Airplanes crashing into balloons. He points out that Space Data's balloons are similar in design to weather balloons, about 1,800 of which are launched world-wide every day without problems.

According to a Federal Aviation Administration official, there are no records of passenger jets colliding with balloons in the U.S. The engines of a commercial jet are designed to withstand the ingestion of an eight-pound bird, the FAA says. (The payload on a Space Data balloon weighs six pounds.)

Google believes balloons like these could radically change the economics of offering cellphone and Internet services in out-of-the-way areas, according to people familiar with its thinking. The company is among the registered bidders for a big chunk of radio spectrum at a government auction currently under way in Washington.

At Space Data's command center in Chandler, engineers track their 10 balloons on a wall-mounted electronic map. Balloons move slowly across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona, where Space Data sells wireless services used by truckers to track their fleet. Overlapping rings on the map demarcate the coverage area of each balloon's transceiver.

When a balloon approaches the end of its useful life, technicians send a signal to separate it from its electronic payload, which parachutes to earth. The balloons eventually burst into "confetti" from the low air pressure, Mr. Knoblach says.

The environmental ramifications of the resulting shower of latex balloon scraps are complex. Some environmentalists argue balloons can be fatal to turtles, fish and whales, which mistake floating latex for jellyfish or other edible sea life. Several states, including Florida and Virginia, restrict balloon launches.

Dale Florio, a spokesman for the Balloon Council, a trade group for balloon makers, says latex balloons biodegrade "at the rate of an oak leaf that falls from a tree."

Net Benefit

Mr. Knoblach says his operation was reviewed by more than a dozen federal agencies, which found no significant environmental impact. Some agencies even consider it a net benefit, he says: The balloons replace tall cellphone towers, which are blamed for killing a significant number of migratory birds that crash into them.

While the balloons are cheap and disposable at $50 a pop, the transceivers they carry are worth about $1,500. Once a transceiver is released from its balloon to parachute back to earth, there's no way to predict where it will land. So Space Data has hired 20 hobbyists with GPS devices to track them down.

Recovery missions can get intense. Workers have had to pluck transceivers out of trees in Louisiana, rappel down rocky cliffs in Arizona, trudge through swamps and kayak across ponds. Space Data pays them $100 per transceiver recovered.

"These things can fall anywhere," says Chip Kyner of San Antonio, who once hiked seven miles before finding the transmitter he was looking for. The final mile was in pitch darkness.

"It wasn't worth the $100," he says, "but it's a neat story."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The eclipse that saved Columbus

An eclipse is credited with saving the life of Christopher Columbus and his crew in 1504.

Stranded on the coast of Jamaica, the explorers were running out of food and faced with increasingly hostile local inhabitants who were refusing to provide them with any more supplies.

Columbus, looking at an astronomical almanac compiled by a German mathematician, realised that a total eclipse of the Moon would occur on February 29, 1504.

He called the native leaders and warned them if they did not cooperate, he would make the Moon disappear from the sky the following night.

The warning, of course, came true, prompting the terrified people to beg Columbus to restore the Moon -- which he did, in return for as much food as his men needed. He and the crew were rescued on June 29, 1504.