Fine Structure

NASA Announces Space Launch System

Today NASA announced its next major space program called the Space Launch System. It's a evolution of the Constellation project that barely began before it was shut down, arguably for not being ambitious enough. Does SLS go farther, litterally and figuratively? Is that far enough?

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LIGO Should Detect Gravity Waves by 2017

The LIGO sensors are getting upgrades in sensitivity that will help them observe gravitational waves - if gravitational waves exist, of course. Kip Thorne is perhaps the foremost expert on these kinds of waves that are theorized to distort space time as they travel outwards from huge gravitational events such as two black holes colliding.

Kip says that gravitational waves should be detectable in the range of between once per hour or once a year by 2017 at the latest. That's a pretty big range and he doesn't specify if that is uncertainty about the amount of gravitational waves created or simply the time range for larger events that LIGO will be able to detect.

I'm fascinated if they'll detect any "pixelation" of space time as GEO600 did three years ago. I'm not a big fan of the idea that the universe is somehow a giant hologram but the idea of the universe having some very fine underlying properties that we can detect with LIGO and GEO600 are steps towards a better understanding of the universe itself.

In addition, I'm pretty psyched that I can link to an article on Fine Structure from three and a half years ago. Blogs are forever!

Published August 20, 2012 • No comments [ ]

Where Curiosity is Going

Literally. Curiosity has some big plans to climb Mt. Sharp on Mars in the coming months and the Atlantic has a good overview of the route the rover is likely to use as it heads out of the crater that it landed in.

Some very nice pictures and a sense of just how far Curiosity has to travel to get where its going.

Published August 18, 2012 • No comments [ ]

Building Curiosity’s Nuclear Power Source

Idaho National Laboratory painstakingly built Curiosity's nuclear power source that's supposed to outlast the previous two rovers by many years (keep in mind they were designed for 90-day missions!). Even after 10 years on the surface the generator will still be producing 89% of its rated current. The longevity of the mechanical components are probably at more risk of failure than lack of current from the power source.

Here's a video from the lab (more of a slideshow I suppose) that shows how stacks of tiny plutonium-iridium chunks are loaded into graphite shells, then into the main power generation equipment. The video also covers the detailed testing process that the power source must go through to prove it can survive being launched on a rocket and landing on Mars.

Published August 7, 2012 • No comments [ ]

Just a Casual Plutonium Delivery

It's mid-July which means you'll always find some blog posts reflecting on the first atomic explosion at the Trinity site in New Mexico dated 16 July, 1945. Here's some of the more interesting behind the scenes photos that I've seen about the delivery of the plutonium core to the site (just a converted house in the middle of the desert) where it was added to the device.

The plutonium itself represents many hours of research and refinement by the very secret (at the time) Oak Ridge and Hanford labs. It's clear in these photos that not only is the package potentially dangerous for the individuals handling it but also that it is not quickly or easily recreated if something were to happen to it. A lot of hope rests on this package.

As a reminder, the Trinity site is open to visitors twice a year, in the spring and fall. While it would be nice to visit for the anniversary, the heat would probably be unbearable.

Published July 21, 2012 • No comments [ ]

Giant Dust Clouds DO Move

You really get a sense for the magnitude of these vast interstellar dust clouds as you watch them move in a few of these animated gifs. Then you realize truly how big they are after seeing the dates indicate that they move this far only after a decade! Amazing how intuitive their movement is, even on such an impressive scale!

Published July 17, 2012 • No comments [ ]

Crackpots, Geniuses, and Evidence

A BoingBoing discussion about what seperates the crackpots from the scientists which is sometimes difficult to discern at first glance - crackpot theories catch on for a reason, after all.

In particular this article covers a theory that Earth began as a gas giant and the solid center was compressed to a much smaller size. As the gas was removed, the center expanded and the previous surface area broke into the continents we know today. It's a fun theory to think about but completely without evidence to support it.

Published July 11, 2012 • No comments [ ]

Higgs-like Particle Discovered

Let's get this out of the way first: a new fundamental particle has been discovered at the LHC!

Now, on to the nitty gritty. I think Wired has the right idea here to make the distinction between discovering a new particle (99.999% confidence that this is something new) and that this is actually the Higgs as the standard model describes it. It'll take some time to discern the useful parts of this new particle but it definitely looks like the Higgs from its mass (around 125-126GeV) and the products that it decays into.

Published July 4, 2012 • No comments [ ]

First X-ray Photo From NuStar

Check out the first x-ray photo from the recently launched NuStar mission and you'll immediately see the improvement in our ability to check out very distant x-ray sources.

According to Wired, NuStar will set its sights on a former supernova and then a quasar as its first two targets. Hopefully we'll see some impressive x-ray images along with the useful data gathered in the coming months!

Published June 29, 2012 • No comments [ ]

As the Large Hadron Collider ramps up for the first 7 TeV collisions today, quite a number of articles are floating around and taking advantage of the increased attention.

First, Wired is keeping a close eye on the LHC with an interview and excerpt from Paul Halpern and his book Collider which came out last August. The excerpt is a little dated but the interview has some good insights into the Texas-located almost-predecessor of the LHC, the Superconducting SuperCollider.

If you're looking for news from the beast itself you can check out CERNs press release for the newly minted energy level. In total, the LHC spent more than three hours colliding beams today and gathering data. All those collisions produced about half a million events that will be sifted for interesting data in the near future.

And, in a more local vein, Lawrence Berkeley Lab has their own article about LBL physicists doing work at the LHC.

As for the collisions themselves, journalists seem to prefer the data-getting rather than the conclusion-finding, perhaps because it's easier to understand "turning on" or "higher energies" than "subtle suggestions of W-decay top production."

Published March 30, 2010 • No comments • Continue reading…

Recently Bloom Energy has been getting a lot of attention for their fuel cell technology they officially launched Wednesday morning and the whole pitch seems very magical at first glance. With a little digging and an understanding of what to look for, I think we can find out just how magical this technology is and what the potential pitfalls are.

Fuel cell technology isn't new by any means. It was originally discovered in the 1830s (yes, the 1830s) though the modern fuel cell is a little more recent (like the 1950s) but limitations have forced it into a niche as essentially a toy for scientists to play with beyond a couple ultra-specialized applications like the Gemini and Apollo programs.

Scientists and engineers love fuel cells because they can have decent efficiencies, generally above 50%. The internal combustion engine, for reference, sits around 15% efficient. The reason they're so limited in use is that their components can be very expensive. Rare and valuable materials, such as platinum and palladium, are used in the production of certain types of fuel cells and this drives up the cost of producing the cell in the first place.

Typically you hear about fuel cells as a powerplant for cars and they generally run on hydrogen because pressurized hydrogen is portable (though heavy - the containers at least). These fuel cells all work the same way; take in hydrogen in one end, insert gaseous oxygen in another end and with the right mixture of cathode, anode and electrolytic materials, you can produce power and emit only water.

Bloom's fuel cell is a particular type of cell called a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) which isn't a new technology in itself and is useful for its lack of expensive materials used in production. Not only does the solid oxide process require heat but it produces huge amounts of heat (upwards of 1000??C), sustaining its own fuel cycle. In all the mystery surrounding the Bloom fuel cell, perhaps the greatest space for innovation is either a SOFC that operates at a lower maximum temperature or materials that better withstand the high temperatures.

The biggest source of mystery in Bloom's product is the green and black "ink" (yes, even they use the "quotes") that form the cathode and anode of the fuel cell. If Bloom has really invented a cheap way to manufacture the cathode and anode portions of the fuel cell, they only have one more hurdle to clear - lifetimes. Bloom doesn't mention the lifetime for their product very prominently but apparently it's around 10 years. That's primarily for the enclosure equipment as I've heard that the fuel cells themselves have to be replaced twice during the lifetime of the product. That's about a three year lifespan for the cells, a pretty decent span of time but also not without waste. Presumably the price of the replacement cells and labor to switch them out is built into the $700-$800k that you would pay for a commercial box.

Between interviews and press coverage, a lot of things have been mentioned about Bloom, the most misleading, I think, are the idea that it can "run on solar" and that it produces "no emissions". "No emissions" could be one of two scenarios, the first being a "run on solar" option as well. Since this type of solid oxide fuel cell can be run on hydrogen alone, a potential configuration is a solar array producing energy that is directly used to electrolyze hydrogen. The hydrogen is then pumped through the fuel cell and produces electricity with oxygen through the process mentioned earlier. The only emission in this case is water. The second is probably more likely with natural or biogas being pumped through the cell. The gas isn't used in the same way that combustion uses it so there aren't any "emissions" so to speak, but there is still used gas to dispose of or refine so it can be used again.

Considering that solar panels aren't generally enough to power an entire house, could they really be enough to generate enough hydrogen to power a house via fuel cells? Probably not. More conversion means more losses to the inefficiencies of systems and going from sunlight to electricity to hydrogen to the fuel cell and back to electricity doesn't seem like it's going to be more efficient than solar alone. Can it potentially use hydrogen as a natural energy storage container, reducing or removing the need for expensive batteries? It's definitely possible, but if hydrogen via solar was all that efficient to begin with, we'd probably be producing more of it already.

It sounds like Bloom is a little more realistic now but there are a lot of mysteries still in play. The cost of manufacturing could be much larger than suggested, Bloom could be burning through their hundreds of millions of dollars in startup funding because the boxes are more expensive to produce then they sell them for. Keep in mind the fuel cell replacement costs twice over ten years. Maybe the cost of developing the inks used in the fuel cell releases lots of carbon dioxide despite the fact that the box itself could produce "no emissions". Or perhaps the fuel cells can't be adequately recycled afterwards and they just build up in some landfill somewhere.

We really won't know the implications until the technology has been on the market for longer and more details about the inks are released. No doubt, this will all come with time as more and more people sign up to get Bloom boxes installed in their backyards.

Published February 24, 2010 • No comments • Continue reading…