24 October 2013
There’s a plan to colonize Mars. Applications are now being accepted from would-be volunteers. From these, four colonists will be chosen for a one way trip to the red planet. No, this isn’t a NASA Project. This project belongs to a Dutch company, “Mars One.” So, when are the colonists scheduled to leave? About 20 years from now. When you consider that the estimated cost will be 6 billion dollars, you wonder how “Mars One” is planning to finance the project? With a reality TV show. But there’s yet another twist to the financing. The 6 billion dollars will be raised by selling sponsorship/advertising for a reality TV show televised from Mars and staring the four “lucky” colonists who “won” their one-way ticket to the red planet.
Who would want to go on a one-way trip to Mars — 20 years from now? Surprisingly, a lot of people — about 100,000 applicants, to date, have paid the $38 dollar application fee – each hoping (1) to pass the fitness screening to be eligible to make the trip and (2) to win the final selection lottery and be one of the four “lucky” colonists. I’d like to call this “a plan,” but I’m not holding my breath. It would take something more before I’d take a Martian colonial adventure seriously. 
But, then, “something more” happened. Bumblebees and Wheeko, a robotic snake, volunteered for a mission to Mars. This was a game-changer. I knew these were real contenders for a successful colonial mission.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bumbles and Robo-snake were being seriously considered by NASA and the ESA, respectively, rather than “Mars One.” It also didn’t hurt that both Bumbles and Robo-snake are uniquely fitted to be Martian colonists.
In fact, a study published in Gravitational and Space Biology has demonstrated that bumblebees have “the right stuff.” [image] These, rather rotund, wild bees forage for food in the same wild grass and brush in which they build their nests. I’m sure that, at first, no one saw them as particularly obvious candidates for a trip to Mars. But, then, NASA identified an atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa) as “the ideal” for extraterrestrial facilities. That’s a rather low pressure compared to earth’s normal sea level pressure of 101 kPa. The search was on for fit space travelers and Martian colonists. And “Bumbles” made the cut, and then some. 
While the bumblebee’s cousin, the familiar hive-dwelling honeybee, not only stopped working, but completely lost the ability to fly at an atmospheric pressure of 66.5 kPa, the bumblebee not only thrived at the lower 52 kPa atmospheric pressure, but continued its work, pollinating plants and collecting honey, at its usual pace. When the pressure was dropped below 50 kPa, “Bumbles” continued to work, but at a slower pace. Then, when the pressure was dropped to 30 kPa, the bumblebees lost their ability to fly but, with an amazing display of mettle, these bees kept on working — foraging, pollinating, and gathering honey, more or less, on foot – crawling from bloom to bloom. I think this the kind of bee we need to conquer the Final Frontier. 
Robo-snake, on the other hand, has the obvious advantage of being a robot. [image] So, those conditions necessary to biological organisms are of little importance to this automaton. However, Robo-snake is an odd contender, because he is being considered . . . before he exists.
Although the ESA (European Space Agency) is, more or less, including Robo-snake as a crew member on an upcoming mission to Mars, this particular robotic crew member has not been developed yet. It’s a little strange. But, on second thought, is recruiting a nonexistent crew member to go on a real mission to Mars any stranger than Mars One recruiting real crew members to go on a nonexistent mission to Mars? 
No matter, robo-snake’s older brother is standing-in for his sibling in futuro during the evaluation process. Big brother (named Wheeko) is a robotic snake that looks and moves surprisingly like a real snake. It’s modus operandi is beyond a brief and simple description, but one video is worth a 1,000 words. [video] Wheeko, is composed of ten round metal balls, on the balls are rows of what appear to be smaller balls that roll with motive power and make Wheeko move. With a camera on its “head,” (which is the lead ball), it makes the familiar serpentine movement of its namesake as it travels on the ground.
Wheeko is the subject of a current feasibility study by researchers at the SINTEF Research Institute in Norway and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Until now, the primary purpose of the development of a robotic snake was as a tool to be used on search and rescue missions. As one of the project members, Aksel Transeth, explained, real snakes “can climb rocks and slide through small holes.” It is hoped that a robot with these skills could be used “to find people in a fallen buildings.”
If Wheeko passes all the tests, what will its little brother, the future Martian colonist, be like? Actually, little brother will be different if for no other reason than he has a sidekick. Or, more accurately, he will be a sidekick. But, instead of playing sidekick to his fellow bumblebee colonists, Robo-snake will play sidekick to the more familiar Mars Rover. These vehicles are designed for off-roading in the rough Martian terrain. Yet, however carefully they are directed, they do have a tendency to get stuck. Enter Robo-snake. [image]
Instead of a lone player on the Martian surface, Robo-snake would be a deployable snake robot or an actual arm attached to the Mars Rover. The Rover vehicle could detach Robo-snake to investigate the nooks and crannies of the terrain while allowing the Rover to maintain a safe distance from areas in which the Rover might get stuck. And if the Rover gets stuck, one proposed design would turn Robo-snake into something like the Rover’s tentacle arm. Such an amazingly versatile arm would be able to both push and pull to extricate the Rover if caught in too tight a spot.
So, together, the bumblebees and the Robo-snake may be the first Martian colonists. Of course, they won’t be traveling together. NASA is interested in “Bumbles” and the ESA is interested in Robo-snake. But even if they don’t share the same flight to the red planet, they’ll probably meet when they get there. Right now, Mars isn’t that crowded.
Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois
THURSDAY: The Sun – CME’s and Auroras – Less Than We Hoped
30 January 2014
On January 9, 2014, we were expecting a lightshow from space and, maybe, some electrical problems, but we didn’t get much of either. The familiar Aurora Borealis was the expected lightshow. But if auroras are familiar, they aren’t frequent, at least not in most of the continental United States. So, it’s a big deal for residents of most of the 48 states when the lightshow dips down far enough to provide one of those rare opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis.
The aurora was visible, but over a much more limited area. One commentator was puzzled by the problem saying, “We could see it in Norway.” And I bet they could. Even weak auroras are visible in, or near, the Arctic Circle, but it takes quite a solar flare, of a certain type, to treat people in the temperate zone to a good show. Some were so disappointed that they were hoping for the development of a “geomagnetic storm.” Do we want a geomagnetic storm? Well, the hardcore aurora watchers might. Although these storms have little effect on human beings, they can wreak havoc with our toys – electronics.
Normally, when I think of a storm, I think of something in the earth’s atmosphere. It’s all about high and low pressure, moisture, dryness, heat and cold. But geomagnetic storms are a different animal. And “aurora watchers” watch the “space weather” forecasts. They were disappointed when the “magnitude of the impact” was “downgraded.” This all needs some explaining.
There is a constant flow of charged particles from the sun’s surface into space. This “solar wind” affects the whole solar system. As a matter of fact, the sun is source of all of this kind of“wind” in the solar system. The energy from the sun, moving through the solar system is what is called “space weather.” There’s more than “wind.” There’s also a sort of “lightening” called solar flares. And, then, there’s a special type of solar flare called a CME, coronal mass ejection. If the sun’s out-flowing energy were a sea, a CME would be a tsunami.
The sun has spots – sunspots that are like caps trapping a lot of pent-up energy below the surface. When the energy builds past a certain point, the cap blows off, and a CME shoots into space. Unlike most solar flares, CME’s can be seen leaving the sun through telescopes on earth. Like all flares, CME’s blow out of the sun in all directions. Thankfully, very, very few are aimed at us.
As the flow of the regular solar “wind” hits the earth’s magnetic field, it produces visible auroras at both the North and South Poles. The aurora at the North Pole is appropriately named “the Northern Lights.” With stunning (and, today, rare) logic, the aurora at the South Pole is named “the Southern Lights.”
But when a CME comes along, like one we were expecting on January 9th, the show really gets rolling. The steady solar wind changes into a blast of charged particles that is so strong that it extends the earth’s magnetic field stretching it farther and farther into space. If you could see the earth’s magnetic field, when a CME hits, it would look like the tail of comet. The magnetic field will stretch and stretch until, suddenly, the field snaps-back. This “snap-back” discharges a lot of electrical energy into the earth’s atmosphere. Then, the stretch and snap-back happens — again and again — until the earth’s atmosphere becomes saturated with electrical potential.
Then, the aurora, usually limited to the Arctic Circle, extends southward getting bigger and brighter. But as we’re watching the show, the earth’s atmosphere is becoming charged with electricity. This isn’t a problem for human beings, but it can damage electrical equipment. How? Well, the atmosphere becomes so electrically supercharged that it becomes conductive. In other words, electricity doesn’t have to stay in the wires. It can flow out of the wires, through the atmosphere, and directly to ground. The manufacturers of electrical equipment didn’t intend for electricity to behave that way.
Radios and telephones can stop working. Electrical equipment that is “turned off” can be turned on by the electricity flowing through the air. Engines can stall. Power stations and transformer overloads can cause shorts and blackouts. All sorts of electrical equipment can suffer serious damage.
And NASA forecasters were predicting a strong geomagnetic storm January 9th and 10th, with a risk of electrical problems. This never materialized. But if it had, we would have been, more or less, prepared. One of the nice things about CME’s is that they can be seen from earth as they leave the sun. Beginning its journey at a leisurely 7,000,000 miles and hour, a CME takes 2 to 3 days reach earth. That means we get 2 to 3 days warning before it strikes.
Strangely, no one took the dangers too seriously until March of 1989 when a CME disrupted Quebec, Canada’s electrical power grid. On March 9th of that year, aurora watchers were having a good old time as the Northern Lights stretched out of the Arctic Circle and blazed as far south as Texas and Florida. At first, some serious short-wave radio interference developed. When signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia were disrupted, there were Cold War fears of an impending nuclear strike.
By midnight, several satellites were experiencing difficulties with electrical malfunctions and false electrical readings. The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission, experienced an alarming false reading from a pressure sensor during the storm that simply disappeared as soon as the “wave” past.
Then, Quebec, Canada’s circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure. Since that time, a lot of special procedures have been developed to deal with CME’s. Again, the advanced warning and predictable arrival time makes preparation much easier. Still, we need expensive high-tech protective shielding to for all of our electrical equipment – great and small. Don’t we?
There’s even a “down and dirty” method of dealing with the effects of an intensely charged atmosphere. Turn everything electrical off. You still might get some interesting effects from, and through, your electrical equipment, but no permanent damage. You can just wait out the storm and “restore” you own private power grid to operation when the danger is over.
[09/12/13] Solar Flares & CME’s — Who Loves the Sun
[07/18/13] Sunshine — Not As Bad As We Thought?