Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Titan Saturn System Mission

There was another five year anniversary this last week -- on Christmas Eve, 2004, the Huygens lander separated from Cassini and went on to land on the surface of Titan three weeks later. This recent Cassini image shows the glint of sunlight due to specular reflection from what is almost certainly a liquid on the surface of Titan, in the Kraken Mare region in the northern hemisphere. At the temperature and pressure on Titan's surface, the liquid is a hydrocarbon compound, probably methane.

In 2009, ESA and NASA merged their outer planets exploration concepts to move forward with a cooperative exploration venture. One of these, the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) was to be a next generation successor to Cassini-Huygens. The mission would comprise three spacecraft -- the first being an American orbiter whose main focus would be on Enceladus and Titan, but also able to observe Saturn, the ring system, and the other moons. Along with the orbiter, two European Titan probes would be deployed: a balloon to be placed in the atmosphere, carrying an instrument package (presumably including cameras); and a surface probe whose objective would be to splashdown onto one of the liquid methane seas, probabaly Kraken Mare.

NASA and ESA collectively decided that the Jupiter/Europa mission had higher priority, due to higher technical feasibility. However, TSSM is ranked quite high in scientific importance, and work will move forward. Based on arrival at Saturn in the late 2020's, I'll be in my seventies by the time the first data comes back.

Note -- According to the Secret Star Trek History of the World, sometime after the 1960s, likely best guess in the 2005 to 2015 timeframe, a manned deep space expedition was sent to Saturn. The mission was led by Colonel Shawn Jeffrey Christopher, son of John Christopher, who in the latter half of the 1960s was a USAF Captain assigned to Omaha Air Force base. Unfortunately, our reality appears to have diverged substantially, although one can still see events in the timestream like the TSSM proposal that reflect the other reality. TSSM is a highly ambitious mission, but it is nowhere close to the level of complexity (and expense) required for a small group of astronauts to be sent to Saturn.

A blast from the past

This story presented the best opportunity for ending the year with a bang -- Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog reminds us of the story that was lost five years ago in the wreckage of human lives and property damage that occurred when a massive tsunami struck the eastern Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. The story from a day and a half later, on December 27, 2004, got much less coverage. A massive burst of energy was observed from a magnetar, a type of neutron star. The blast was powerful enough to knock out satellites, and had it been closer, it would have potentially been an extinction level event.

The magnetar in question was SGR 1806-20, now believed to be the most powerful magnetic object known -- strength of 10E15 gauss (compared with between 1 to 5 gauss on our own Sun). 10E15 is the number 1 followed by 15 zeroes. To put this in context, a fridge magnet has a field strength of about 100 gauss, while more exotic neodymium-based magnets can be 10 to 20 times more powerful, up to 2,000 gauss. A medical NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) imaging device will generate magnetic fields from 10,000 up to 30,000 gauss. The field surrounding this particular magnetar is a hundred billion times more powerful than the NMR machine.

I thought initially that the SGR designator was a reference to its location in the sky (which would be toward the general direction of Sagittarius or SGR), but in fact SGR is a reference to "Soft Gamma Repeater". From a much greater distance, this event would have appeared as a very high energy transient event, so it is possible that events like this can help in the explanation for Gamma Ray Bursts like GRB 090423.

Something else to lie in bed awake at night thinking about: as noted in the article abstract in the journal Nature, this object released more energy in a fifth of a second than the Sun in 250,000 years. Nature doesn't do lurid speculation, but if it had been 10 instead of 50,000 light years away, its effect for everyone on the half of the world facing it would have been equivalent to being less than 10 km away from a 12 kiloton nuclear blast. Fortunately, there are no magnetars within 10,000 light years of Earth.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Giant Buddha

Hugh has some great photos of the giant Buddha statue on Lantau Island, just north of Hong Kong.

These photos bring back some memories -- I was there with my parents in 1998. Jill was along on that trip, although she was pregnant with Corwin at the time, and I suspect many things were a hazy blur of exhaustion for her.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Winter Solstice - 2009

Today was the Winter Solstice. The sun's path on the ecliptic returned to its ascending node for the Northern Hemisphere at 12:47 ET today. The days get longer from here -- but in the meantime, we have to get through Christmas in a few more days, and also incidentally the depths of winter. Happy Solstice - and may 2010 be a brighter New Year for all of us!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Known Universe in Six Minutes

The American Museum of Natural History has updated one of my favourite movies with their presentation of The Known Universe (suggestion - use the Fullscreen button which is the second button brom the right on the Youtube playback bar):

The Known Universe movie is based on visualization of current astronomical and astrophysical data which the American Museum of Natural History maintains through the affiliated Hayden Planetarium as part of its Digital Universe Atlas.

The favourite movie that I referred to earlier is Powers of Ten, made by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1970s. For many years, the film made as a proposal (in the late 1960s) for the final Powers of Ten film was shown in the Ontario Science Centre.

The final Powers of Ten film is a short documentary, lasting under ten minutes. Narrated by Philip Morrison, it has what I think of as a cosmic part and a quantum part. The cosmic part zooms out from a height of one meter above a couple at a picnic. Every ten seconds, the scale increases by a factor of ten. At one hundred million light years, the perspective is reversed back to the starting point one meter above the couple. At that point, the scale zooms inward, until it ends up focused on the nucleus of a carbon atom in the hand of one of the picnickers. Forty orders of magnitude are covered, and in a very compact way, the movie shows the continuity of the physical world from everyday experience to both the cosmic and quantum.

Unlike Powers of Ten, The Known Universe does not stop at 100 million light years, but instead goes all the way out to the horizon of the known universe at 13.7 billion light years -- two and a fraction orders of magnitude farther out.

Those extra orders of magnitude are due to the advances in the 32 years between the two films. The work that had been done by Allan Sandage in calibrating the cosmic distance scale had allowed distances to be derived for galaxies out to 25 and 50 million light years with objects like M100 and M101 in the 70s and 80s, more tentatively for objects at greater distances. For the state of the art in 1977, 100 million light years was a pretty substantial distance.

The revolution in available data and knowledge that came with the advent of the Hubble Space Telescope, the other Great Observatories space missions, and COBE, allowed the distance scale and the Hubble Constant to be much more firmly nailed down, and this in turn made possible the truly awesome visualization that the AMNH has done.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blogging Mistakes

Michael Hyatt, who has a great blog on management and leadership, has a list of 10 Blogging Mistakes. I am clearly a poster child for almost every one of them, but especially the first one -- I don't post enough. But then, that ensures that my readers aren't bored with what I have to say...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

We Support Peter Watts

Our friend Peter Watts, a PhD marine biologist and brilliant science fiction author, lived through my worst nightmare last Tuesday. On his way home from the US, he was stopped by American border guards and thrown in jail for questioning the reason for being stopped in the first place. Journalist and author David Nickle reports on his blog as follows:
Peter, a Canadian citizen, was on his way back to Canada after helping a friend move house to Nebraska over the weekend. He was stopped at the border crossing at Port Huron, Michigan by U.S. border police for a search of his rental vehicle. When Peter got out of the car and questioned the nature of the search, the gang of border guards subjected him to a beating, restrained him and pepper sprayed him. At the end of it, local police laid a felony charge of assault against a federal officer against Peter. On Wednesday, he posted bond and walked across the border to Canada in shirtsleeves (he was released by Port Huron officials with his car and possessions locked in impound, into a winter storm that evening). He's home safe. For now. But he has to go back to Michigan to face the charge brought against him.

In Peter's own words written last Friday:
If you buy into the Many Worlds Intepretation of quantum physics, there must be a parallel universe in which I crossed the US/Canada border without incident last Tuesday. In some other dimension, I was not waved over by a cluster of border guards who swarmed my car like army ants for no apparent reason; or perhaps they did, and I simply kept my eyes downcast and refrained from asking questions.

Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half-naked into a holding cell for three fucking hours, thrown into an even colder jail cell overnight, arraigned, and charged with assaulting a federal officer, all without access to legal representation (although they did try to get me to waive my Miranda rights. Twice.). Nor was I finally dumped across the border in shirtsleeves: computer seized, flash drive confiscated, even my fucking paper notepad withheld until they could find someone among their number literate enough to distinguish between handwritten notes on story ideas and, I suppose, nefarious terrorist plots. I was not left without my jacket in the face of Ontario’s first winter storm, after all buses and intercity shuttles had shut down for the night.

In some other universe I am warm and content and not looking at spending two years in jail for the crime of having been punched in the face.

But that is not this universe.

Stay tuned.

The Facebook page Against The Arrest and Beating of Peter Watts had 20 members when I found it on Friday night. By the time I clicked the JOIN button, there were 23, one being me. The numbers increased progressively over the weekend, with 1,170 members a few minutes ago -- around 4 days after the page was first created.

Jill and I are going spend the family Christmas fund on a donation to Peter's defense costs, and I encourage others to donate as well. I do this entirely selfishly: if this can happen to an articulate, personable white guy like Peter, then what are the prospects for me?

Robert Ashby raises the related question "since when did 'at least I didn’t get strip-searched and beaten' become our standard of service?". Robert's essay is a companion piece to Madeline Ashby's post on the subject on her blog.

Here is a selection of online articles which have appeared in the last week:

The definitive story appeared on David Nickle's blog with a posting about the initial incident, with a brief correction and a follow-up post providing details of how Bakka-Phoenix Books is helping to get donations to Peter.

Article on BoingBoing with a follow-up post on Making Light which makes reference to the "demonstrable mendaciousness" of the account in the Port Huron Times-Herald. Both the BoingBoing and Making Light discussion threads became politicized, with trolls appearing in force. Charles Stross, who conducted an interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman at the last Worldcon in Montreal, and who shared a book reading with Peter at the same convention, found it necessary to stomp a troll.

The Globe and Mail article raises interesting questions related to privacy.

Article in the Toronto Star. The spokesman for the US border crossing at Sarnia insists that Peter "assaulted" their officers. What would have happened to him had he waived his Miranda rights?

John Scalzi's Whatever blog with a post on Helping Out Peter Watts.

John McDaid appears to have the definitive summary of the news coverage.

Peter's Blog:

Not The Best of Possible Worlds on Dec 11, quoted above.

Squidgate. Update. later on Dec 11.

Happiness is a Warm Parka. And Friends I Didn’t Know I Had. from Dec 13.

Donations: As noted previously, cheques can be made out to Peter Watts, and mailed to Bakka-Phoenix Science Fiction Bookstore, 697 Queen St. West / Toronto, Ontario / M6J 1E6. Cash donations will also be accepted if you drop by the store. Electronic payments may be made to donate(at), or via this link.