Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Space Pollution

For millennia, mankind has used Earth’s resources however it wanted, and when we were done with something, we simply abandoned it. Most of this stuff will - eventually - return to its component parts, thanks to weather and other natural events.

But there is no weather in space, so what happens to stuff that gets abandoned there?

Mostly, it stays where we left it, usually in some kind of orbit around Earth. Lose contact with an old satellite? That’s okay, we need a new one anyway; we’ll just put the new one in a new orbit. Somebody lost their wrench while working outside? I think the job can still be done with this other wrench and a little ingenuity. The lost wrench? Oh, just move the station another kilometer higher, and you should be fine.

Yes, we’ve been cavalier about the junk we’ve left out there. Some gets sent into a ‘graveyard orbit’ at the end of its usefulness. Other stuff eventually is pulled toward the Earth and (hopefully) burns up before it hits the ground. Remember Skylab? That was scary, to know this big thing was coming down, that it would not burn up completely, but not know exactly where it would hit. Then it broke into pieces, some of which still made it to the surface, and even more uncertainty where they would hit.

Some satellites had a nuclear reactor to power their equipment. At the end of their ‘life’, many were sent to a graveyard orbit, but others fell to Earth, where they became a problem. Even those in the graveyard could be punctured by a micro-meteor and leak coolant from the reactor. The coolant would solidify and become droplets of more junk.

So, let’s see, we have dead satellites, booster stages, fragments of booster stages that have exploded, fragments caused by collisions, and lost equipment, just to name a few categories of space pollution. Now, the movies always depict (these days) a tool as having a tether to connect it to the astronaut, but it apparently took time to think of doing that. The ‘lost equipment’ category includes: a glove, 2 cameras, a thermal blanket, bags of garbage, a wrench and a toothbrush. Okay, those bulky space suit gloves can make it difficult to maintain a grip, but how does an astronaut lose one of his gloves?

People try to keep track of all this stuff, try to avoid collisions with equipment still in use. I don’t know who supplied these numbers, but there are over 170,000,000 pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm, as of July 2013. Additionally, there are 670,000 pieces between 1 and 10 cm (3.9 inches), and 29,000 pieces larger than 10 cm.

So, who cares? Most of it’s tiny, and if it’s big enough to do damage, you just move your ship or satellite out of the way. Yes, most of it is tiny, but at the speeds they travel, even the tiny ones pack quite a punch. And the equipment can’t always move out of the way.

The Kessler syndrome theorizes that once space debris reaches a particular density, there will be a chain reaction of collisions, each breaking its components into smaller pieces, which go on to have more collisions... It’s uncertain whether the Earth has already reached that point, but it’s not something we want to happen. The Earth could become completely swaddled in debris to the point that we could no longer launch ourselves into space. There goes our glorious dreams of a Space Empire! Or even of just getting off this rock to colonize... any place else.

Would such a debris cloud cut the amount of sunlight that reaches us? That might help mitigate global warming! If not, then I guess we’ll just bake ourselves on the ground as we kick ourselves for making it impossible to move away.

There have been many suggestions on how to remove space debris. At least one country has built their idea and sent it up for testing, but couldn’t get it to work. Most don’t see it as ‘cost effective’.

So, here’s my idea. If you have a big problem, you need to think big. Build a space station. I know, we have one, but that’s not big enough. We need a big one, with manufacturing capabilities and housing/entertainment for the workers. Use a small space tug to go out, grab debris and bring it back as ‘raw material’ for building interplanetary space ships.

Or maybe you prefer to sit back and wait for ‘nature to take its course’?

By the way, have you seen the movie Gravity? That was the Kessler syndrome in action.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Swords - Fantasy or Fact?

A Guest Entry by Ta’Yant bilora vi Grrrck (of Floya 4 - There are other Ta’Yant bilora vi Grrrcks, but they aren’t from Floya 4!)

A common occurrence in the genre ‘high fantasy’ or ‘epic fantasy’ is the use of swords, some of which had or are said to have had magical powers. Since many of these stories appear to be set on Old Earth and include other items that also appear in ancient Earth myths and legends - such as elves, dwarves, dragons, magic and the like, I decided to search the ancient texts from the Home Planet to determine how much of the legend of ‘swords’ might be purely imaginary.

First, let me say that it is very difficult to discern whether a particular text is truly factual. So many texts either gave no references or referred to texts that are no longer part of what records we still have, so cannot be verified. Since the chances of finding additional texts seems impossible, with Earth (and indeed, that entire system) in their current inhospitable state, I can only present what I found as a series of supposed truths, with the understanding that it might be completely contaminated with ‘facts’ that are nothing more than ‘beliefs’ of the time.

One source text came to be a wealth of knowledge to me, or would have, if the links to its sources had been intact, or if I had been able to verify anything it said from some other source. Even the title of this reference text was incomplete, consisting of “”. Ancient historians (meaning those who study ancient history, who or may or may not be ancient in their own right) believe this title places it in the ‘wikipedia’ reference source of the 22nd century, which is either famous for being so large and all-inclusive, or infamous for having no basis in fact, depending on which historian is speaking. This article stated that a spatha was a long, straight sword, originally used by the ‘germanic’ people against the ‘romans’, who started with swords that were shorter. The ‘romans’, however, adopted the longer version so that they could stab opponents from a longer distance.

So, if this information is correct, swords were real, and came in different lengths. In my efforts to double-check everything, I could not find ‘germanic’ or ‘romans’ on any maps within the available wikipedia texts. I did find a map (circa 2100) that showed an area called Germany, and somewhat south of that, a city called Rome. If these are the areas of the peoples referenced, further study of even more texts indicate that Germany was a source of many huge wars involving the entire planet, and that the highly religious Rome people were led by a Grand Priest, alternately referred to as ‘The Pope’ and ‘Ceasar’. I personally have trouble with the thought of a ‘deeply religious’ people who carried and used weapons, but I am not versed in all types of religion. Perhaps their religion called on them to dominate others. In that case, I can not be surprised that they eventually came to blows with the war-faring germanics.

I ran across 2 ‘news articles’ from 2015 and 2016. As ‘news stories’, they had no links to any reference materials, but I include them here because I found them so interesting. In 2015, a ‘hiker’(?) found an ‘ancient viking’ sword on the side of the road in Norway, and a specialist from a local museum (?) stated the sword was from 750 AD, approximately 1200 years before it was found. (I can’t make any sense of their calendar! I thought these dates were in the same calendar era, but 750 plus 1200 equals 1950, not 2015!) The specialist went on to say that if given a new handle, the sword could be used ‘today’ (meaning 2015). 

In 2016, a local ‘couple’ found an ‘amazingly preserved’ sword in a ‘field’ near their home in Denmark. This sword, a museum representative stated, was 3,000 years old. Apparently, swords were in use for more than 3000 years, since one of these was that old, and the other only needed some minor repairs before it could be used again! And yes, Norway and Denmark were both on that map, Norway north of Denmark, with a strip of water between them. But research indicated that Norway was colonized by Denmark, so why would they be at war with each other?

My head is spinning, just trying to keep all these ‘facts’ straight and get them presented in a logical sequence. And I’ve just barely begun telling you all that I found in those old replicas! My time for this entry is up, but as soon as I can pick up two thoughts and put them together, I’ll see about writing another entry.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


I’ve talked before about our solar system as if it were a family, with the sun as the parent, and the planets as the children. The moons, asteroids and other bits would be the grandchildren, I suppose.

I am quite fascinated with our solar system. Until scientists find facts about other solar systems, this is the only one I’ve got to study; these are the only planets I can use as a springboard when my imagination wants to design one for a story. So I keep looking for new things about them that I didn’t know before. Luckily, NASA and scientists keep looking at them, too.

Today’s subject is Saturn and its rings.

You’d think the solar system was a big family, with 9 8 planets and several dwarf planets. But for Saturn, 8 or 9 was not enough. Saturn has 62 moons that have names, and another 9 that have not yet been named. Wow! Can you imagine 71 kids? I’d have lots of trouble remembering half their names, not just 9 of them. I had a couple batches of cousins who had 8 siblings in each family. Gram gave up trying to remember our names; all the girls became ‘Pigtails’ and the boys were ‘Junior’.

I didn’t realize just how many moons Saturn has. One day I will have to start looking more closely at them, but today, I’m looking at the rings.

There are 7 rings. They don’t exactly have names, but each is designated by a letter. I suspect the letters were assigned as the individual rings were discovered, because otherwise, there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason for the assignments.

If you start at Saturn and move away from the planet, you arrive at Ring D, then Ring C, Ring B and Ring A. Continue outward, and you will find Ring F, Ring G and Ring E. Between each pair of rings is a gap, a space that is not absolutely empty, but is relatively empty compared to the rings. (I haven’t figured out if any of the gaps is home to a moon, but I do know that some of the moons are somewhere in the ‘rings’. Some day, I have to figure that out.) Each ring and gap is its own width, meaning the distance between the side closest to Saturn and the side furthest from Saturn.

But they are also thin, meaning the distance from the ‘top’ of the ring to the ‘bottom’. Thickness for all the rings is less than 1 km.

If there is one thing Saturn’s rings are, it’s not consistent. The various rings are made up of water ice particles (with a trace of rock for flavoring), but those particles range from the size of a grain of sugar to the size of a house.

The rings are a very busy place. With 71 moons of various sizes orbiting around this big ol’ gas giant, the gravity and magnetic fields are forever fluctuating. The latest probe documented ‘lines’ in some rings, which are called spokes. The spokes come and go, and they aren’t sure what causes them, but they suspect they are a temporary ‘pile-up’ (traffic jam) of particles caused by the gravity or magnetic fields. Or maybe by electricity leaking from storms in Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

And spokes are not the only oddity in the rings. Ring F seems to be ‘braided’. Who taught those particles how to do that?

But don’t worry about Saturn’s rings. Some of the moons (bigger siblings) act as shepherds for the rings, using their gravity/magnetic fields to keep the ring particles where they belong. More or less.

I’ve just barely touched on Saturn, but that’s all for today. After all, it is a gas giant, with a huge family; too big a subject for me to explore the entire thing in one sitting.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What’s Up, Doc?

I’ve reached that ‘special’ age where parts of me stiffen and ache. When I get tired of putting up with this nonsense, and I don’t feel a medical doctor is doing enough for me, I start researching the cause and what I can do about it. Yes, I’ve been known to dabble in alternative medicines, but only if it made a kind of sense to me AND had next-to-no side effects.

Aromatherapy? Sure. That’s just a matter of smell, and most of the essential oils have a pleasant odor, so why not?

Chiropractics? I’m a firm believer. It seems most medical doctors only worry about bones if they’re broken or completely out of place, but those x-rays can show a chiropractitioner that a particular bone is ‘in place’ but slightly twisted. For years, I would off and on see a chiro for a low-back pain that would radiate down one leg. It would take a few weeks for him to convince that bone to stay untwisted, but then I was good for another year or so.

Acupuncture? I don’t like needles, so I’ve only had the electronic kind, but it seems to help, at least with sinuses and headaches.

But a person has to be careful. Some ‘remedies’ or ‘procedures’ are nothing but a scam.

For instance, let’s look at a company called Theranos. Stanford University student Elizabeth Holmes created a wearable patch that could adjust the dosage of drug delivery and notify doctors wirelessly of variables in the patient’s blood. At the age of 19, she founded Theranos and worked to develop chip technology that would make blood tests quicker and cheaper, requiring only the blood from a pin prick, similar to a blood sugar test.

In 10 years, she had raised over $400 million in funding, but her work was done in secret, which did not sit well with some health groups. Also, Theranos did the testing themselves and did not allow their work to be peer-reviewed. Problems ensued, and grew, as Theranos labs failed inspections, the small-dose blood test equipment apparently required test tubes full of blood, and it was found that the labs actually used the exact same equipment that other labs used.

Why does this matter? It’s left a bitter taste in mouths of many people, from investors to corporations who chose to ‘partner’ with the new company to government agencies who were shocked when they inspected Theranos labs, right down to the patients who thought things were really changing, only to find out everything was the same. Oh, maybe one thing might have changed; the work done at Theranos labs may or may not have been less accurate than that of other labs.

That’s why I carefully study ‘alternatives’ to regular medicine, whether they involve ‘ancient knowledge’, a new ‘break-through’, or something in between. I did not work up any enthusiasm for Holmes’ blood-lab chip for a number of reasons:
1. Holmes was a chemical engineering student, which - in my mind - is nowhere near a medical professional.
2. She dropped out of school after one year even though her school adviser - when she explained her plans for a blood-lab chip - told her it wouldn’t work.
3. She ran her company in complete secrecy, which is apparently standard for tech start-ups, but NOT for medical companies.
4. She filled the company board with politicians and military types. She filled the company with engineers. I suppose for a product like she wanted, you would need some engineers, but... where were the physicians?
5. Ten years in, there was still NO SIGN of these blood-lab chips. Really? After 10 years, they could do nothing any differently from anybody else? They couldn’t even come up with a desk-top-sized machine that could take a smear of blood and test for something?

Okay, there are problems with the ‘old’ technology; the patient has to be stuck with a needle and have a significant amount of blood drawn (depending on how many and what tests are to be done), and both patient and doctor have to wait for the results to come back from the lab. It would be exciting to have a blood-lab chip that would eliminate both of these, but we don’t. Even after 14 (almost 15) years, we don’t.

In this case, I guess... Tried and true will have to do.