Testing New Boosters, Flying on Solar Power, and Gearing Up at the LHC | Vol. 2 / No. 20

Two minutes of raw power; Photo: Orbital ATK
Two minutes of raw power; Photo: Orbital ATK

Booster Test

This week, Orbital ATK, the company tasked with building the five-segment solid rocket boosters that will be strapped to either side of the Space Launch System, performed a two-minute test of the new booster. The SLS is NASA’s planned replacement rocket, meant to eventually allow for human exploration of Mars. The plan calls for the first launch of the new system in November 2018, in the second Orion uncrewed flight test, which (if successful) will send the next-generation capsule around the moon and back. Boeing is currently under contract to provide the cores for the first two missions, with the second, a crewed mission to rendezvous with a previously-captured asteroid placed in lunar orbit, planned for as early as 2021. Whether NASA and its contractors will meet those goals is up in the air due mostly to the political nature of US space funding, which also calls into question the plan for the first crewed mission: according to that timetable, in 2019 NASA will be capturing an asteroid and putting it into lunar orbit for the astronauts to visit in 2021. The problem is that by that schedule, the asteroid redirect mission would have to launch this year, and it won’t. Still, the fact that the boosters are being built is a nice reassurance that something is going on. If you want more of it, check out this video over at engadget.

This news follows the successful test on March 4 of the SLS’s launch abort system, also manufactured by Orbital ATK.

Meanwhile, though smaller, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket’s first test flight still appears to be on schedule for later this year, which would make it the most powerful rocket available since the Atlas V (and until the SLS gets its feet off the ground), for a substantially lower cost. Maybe Red Dragon will happen after all.

The Solar Impulse over Oman, Photo: Solar Impulse | rezo.ch
The Solar Impulse over Oman, Photo: Solar Impulse | rezo.ch

Solar Impulse

This week the world’s first solar-powered aerial circumnavigation began, and it’s already breaking records. The Solar Impulse 2, a single-seat aircraft with a wingspan of 72m, began its round-the-world journey with a 12-hour trip from Abu Dhabi to Oman. The second leg of the journey, a 15-hour flight from Oman to Ahmedabad in India, took it across the Arabian Sea and into the record books with the longest single flight by a piloted, solar-powered vehicle. Over the next five months, the two pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borchberg, will split the next ten legs of the journey, which will carry the plane eastward to Nanjing before a two-leg mammoth flight across the Pacific, stopping only once in Hawaii. They estimate at times they will need to fly for five days and nights without a break to cross the oceans with a massive bank of lithium-ion batteries storing electricity generated during the day. Check out the BBC or the Solar Impulse blog for more information and ongoing updates.

ATLAS at the LHC; Photo: CERN, CC BY 2.0
ATLAS at the LHC; Photo: CERN, CC BY 2.0

Gearing Up

The Large Hadron Collider is back in the news this week, as it gears up to restart after $163million in upgrades. In July 2012, scientists and engineers working at the LHC announced the discovery of a Higgs-like particle in the 126GeV range, and confirmed their results in an an announcement in January of the following year, after the LHC had been shut down for its upgrades. The upgrades are not insignificant: where previously it was throwing around particles with collisions in the 8TeV range (that’s Terra-electronvolts), the new and improved LHC will be able to achieve energies in the 13TeV range. Just to give you an idea of what that means, an eletronvolt is a truly minuscule amount of energy: it’s 1 volt multiplied by the elementary charge (e, the electric charge of a single proton), which, in Joules, is 1.602176565(35)×10−19 J, or 0.0000000000000000001602176565 J. But a TeV is a trillion electronvolts, or about as much kinetic energy as a flying mosquito. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but to give a proton the same kinetic energy as a mosquito it has to be going fast. Really, really fast. At 7TeV, the proton is travelling 99.999991% of the speed of light, and for something with mass, that’s pretty amazing. Add to that that the LHC isn’t accelerating one proton to that speed, but more like a hundred trillion protons, and you start to get an idea of what this machine is doing. This time around, scientists are hoping to get clues into the nature of dark matter, and whether or not supersymmetry is really a thing. Check out Scientific American for more.

And in other dark matter news, have we found it? Survey says… maybe?

Running Out

California will be out of reservoir water in a year, and groundwater not long after that, according to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA/JPL and professor of Earth sciences at UC Irvine. California hasn’t had anything like a wet enough “wet” season to even make up for its day-to-day water usage, let alone making up for the reservoir and groundwater depletion that’s been going on since 2002. He’s advocating immediate water rationing and strategic planning, and it’s not hard to see why. January was the driest ever recorded. February was the hottest. And the agricultural powerhouse that’s been feeding all of America has been pumping the groundwater dry to the tune of 1.5 times the entire (full) capacity of Lake Mead below where it should be. Last year, San Diego built a massive desalination plant, fighting environmentalists and taxpayer groups tooth and nail the whole way, but their decision may prove prescient: as Bob Yamada from the San Diego County Water Authority said in this piece from last year, “you can’t conserve or recycle what you don’t have.” Something tells me that California is going to need every water source it can get. Read Famiglietti’s op-ed in the LA Times.

GDP and CO2

For the first time in forty years, the rate at which we’re putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere held steady (that is, didn’t actively increase) without a simultaneous contraction in the global economy, according to the International Energy Agency. It’s not great news — we still put 32.3 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2014. But that’s the same figure as 2013, meaning that for the first time in a long time, we weren’t making the problem worse at an ever-increasing rate without also being in a global recession. This is good news. It’s not enough to save the environment, not yet, but it means we can reduce CO2 emissions without a financial cost. Plus, with solar and wind making ever-increasing gains in the energy sector, there might actually be room for optimism. For analysis on why, check out the Washington Post.

Apple Absurdity

The Apple Watch is on the market, and watch out: it’s ridiculous. The least it’ll set you back is $350. That alone seems absurd for a peripheral that still needs a cellphone to work. But with battery life at 48-hours at the absolute maximum (and down to “up to” 3 hours of talk time), with a charging time of 1.5-2.5 hours, you have to wonder how well it’s really going to function at, well, anything practical. But then, maybe it isn’t aimed at being practical — Apple’s been worse and worse with practicality since it eliminated optical drives and, this just in, everything but a single USB-C port in the latest MacBook — so maybe it won’t come as a surprise that the highest-end Apple Watch is going to run you a cool $10,000. Why? Why does any watch cost $10,000 or more? Because there are people out there with so much more money than common sense that there exists a market for them. But hey, if that’s your thing, you go right ahead. If I had $10,000 and a burning desire to have an Apple Watch, I’d buy a $350 one and use the remaining $9,650 to cover the rent for the year, or at least, my half. But whatever you want to do, guys.

Here’s a clip of a Spanish comedian losing it to something unrelated, but with related subtitles.

Best of the Rest

As usual, I couldn’t get to everything. So if you’ve got more time to kill and a burning desire to know what else happened this week, check out the following links:

Don’t forget to come back Tuesdays and Fridays for more, and like us on Facebook if you want new posts to find you there.

That’s all for today. Have a great week.