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.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Smaller Version of the Solar System Is Discovered

The New York Times
February 15, 2008

Smaller Version of the Solar System Is Discovered

Astronomers said Wednesday that they had found a miniature version of our own solar system 5,000 light-years across the galaxy — the first planetary system that really looks like our own, with outer giant planets and room for smaller inner planets.

“It looks like a scale model of our solar system,” said Scott Gaudi, an assistant professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. Dr. Gaudi led an international team of 69 professional and amateur astronomers who announced the discovery in a news conference with reporters.

Their results are being published Friday in the journal Science. The discovery, they said, means that our solar system may be more typical of planetary systems across the universe than had been thought.

In the newly discovered system, a planet about two-thirds of the mass of Jupiter and another about 90 percent of the mass of Saturn are orbiting a reddish star at about half the distances that Jupiter and Saturn circle our own Sun. The star is about half the mass of the Sun.

Neither of the two giant planets is a likely abode for life as we know it. But, Dr. Gaudi said, warm rocky planets — suitable for life — could exist undetected in the inner parts of the system.

“This could be a true solar system analogue,” he said.

Sara Seager, a theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not part of the team, said that “right now in exoplanets we are on an inexorable path to finding other Earths.” Dr. Seager praised the discovery as “a big step in finding out if our planetary system is alone.”

Since 1995, around 250 planets outside the solar system, or exoplanets, have been discovered. But few of them are in systems that even faintly resemble our own. In many cases, giant Jupiter-like planets are whizzing around in orbits smaller than that of Mercury. But are these typical of the universe?

Almost all of those planets were discovered by the so-called wobble method, in which astronomers measure the gravitational tug of planets on their parent star as they whir around it. This technique is most sensitive to massive planets close to their stars.

The new discovery was made by a different technique that favors planets more distant from their star. It is based on a trick of Einsteinian gravity called microlensing. If, in the ceaseless shifting of the stars, two of them should become almost perfectly aligned with Earth, the gravity of the nearer star can bend and magnify the light from the more distant one, causing it to get much brighter for a few days.

If the alignment is perfect, any big planets attending the nearer star will get into the act, adding their own little boosts to the more distant starlight.

That is exactly what started happening on March 28, 2006, when a star 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius began to pass in front of one 21,000 light-years more distant, causing it to flash. That was picked up by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or Ogle, a worldwide collaboration of observers who keep watch for such events.

Ogle in turn immediately issued a worldwide call for continuous observations of what is now officially known as OGLE-2006-BLG-109. The next 10 days, as Andrew P. Gould, a professor of mathematical and physical sciences at Ohio State said, were “extremely frenetic.”

Among those who provided crucial data and appeared as lead authors of the paper in Science were a pair of amateur astronomers from Auckland, New Zealand, Jennie McCormick and Grant Christie, both members of a group called the Microlensing Follow-Up Network, or MicroFUN.

Somewhat to the experimenters’ surprise, by clever manipulation they were able to dig out of the data not just the masses of the interloper star and its two planets, but also rough approximations of their orbits, confirming the similarity to our own system. David P. Bennett, an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame, said, “This event has taught us that we were able to learn more about these planets than we thought possible.”

As a result, microlensing is poised to become a major new tool in the planet hunter’s arsenal, “a new flavor of the month,” Dr. Seager said.

Only six planets, including the new ones, have been discovered by microlensing so far, and the Scorpius event being reported Friday is the first in which the alignment of the stars was close enough for astronomers to detect more than one planet at once. Their success at doing just that on their first try bodes well for the future, astronomers say.

Alan Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said, “The fact that these are hard to detect by microlensing means there must be a good number of them — solar system analogues are not rare.”