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Archive for the ‘Airspace’ Category

Pilotless Boeing aircraft raises prospect manned dogfights 65000ft

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The maiden flight of a revolutionary drone aircraft that can stay in the air for four days at 65,000 feet is just days away.

The Phantom Eye, made by Boeing’s secretive Phantom Works division, is powered by hydrogen and is designed to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance missions while remaining at high altitude. It will produce only water as a by-product.

Its inaugural flight will take place at Edwards Air Force Base in California and is expected to last between four and eight hours.

Phantom Eye: The technology behind it means pilotless dog-fights have come a step closer

Phantom Eye: The technology behind it means pilotless dog-fights have come a step closer

Boeing also is developing a larger unmanned plane that will stay aloft for more than 10 days and ‘Phantom Ray,’ a fighter-sized UAV that will be a test bed for more advanced technologies, which made its inaugural flight in April.

The drone technologies being developed by Phantom Works mean the day when dog fights take place between unmanned aircraft is getting much closer.

‘Phantom Eye is the first of its kind and could open up a whole new market in collecting data and communications,’ Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said.

‘It is a perfect example of turning an idea into a reality. It defines our rapid prototyping efforts and will demonstrate the art-of-the-possible when it comes to persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

‘The capabilities inherent in Phantom Eye’s design will offer game-changing opportunities for our military, civil and commercial customers.’

An artist's impression of the high-altitude spy plane

An artist’s impression of the high-altitude spy plane.

‘It’s exciting to be part of such a unique aircraft,’ said Drew Mallow, Phantom Eye program manager for Boeing.

‘The hydrogen propulsion system will be the key to Phantom Eye’s success. It is very efficient and offers great fuel economy, and its only byproduct is water, so it’s also a “green” aircraft.’

Phantom Eye is powered by two 2.3-litre, four-cylinder engines that provide 150 horsepower each. It has a 150-foot wingspan, will cruise at approximately 150 knots and can carry up to a 450-pound payload.

 

Via DailyMail

Nasa satellite UARS nearing Earth ‘could land anywhere’

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Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite

A five ton, 20-year-old satellite has fallen out of orbit and is expected to crash somewhere on Earth on or around 24 September, according to Nasa.

Nasa says the risk to life from the UARS – Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite – is just 1 in 3,200.

It could land anywhere between 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south of the equator – most of the populated world.

However, most of the satellite will break or burn up before reaching Earth.

Scientists have identified 26 separate pieces that could survive the fall through the earth’s atmosphere, and debris could rain across an area 400-500km (250-310 miles) wide.

Nasa said scientists would only be able to make more accurate predictions about where the satellite might land two hours before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

Falling space debris

Rocket propellant tank (Nasa)
  • Hardware re-enters at shallow angles (<1 degree)
  • Some 50 items weighing >1 tonne re-enter a year
  • Major break-up occurs about 80km altitude
  • 10-40% of dry mass on orbit will survive
  • Debris spreads over long, thin “footprints”
  • It can be a hazard to people and property

Re-entry

The 1 in 3,200 risk to public safety is higher than the 1 in 10,000 limit that Nasa aims for.

However, Nasa told reporters that nobody had ever been hurt by objects re-entering from space.

Members of the public are not allowed to keep pieces of the satellite that may fall to Earth, or sell them on eBay, as they remain the property of the US government.

The UARS was launched in 1991 by the Discovery space shuttle, and was decommissioned in 2005.

The latest satellite re-entry is much smaller than Skylab, a satellite that re-entered the earth’s atmosphere in 1979.

It was some 15 times heavier than the UARS, and when it crashed in Western Australia the US government had to pay clean-up costs to the Australian government.

Sputnik 2 crashed on Earth in 1958, travelling from over New York to the Amazon in 10 minutes. It was viewed by many people and left a trail of brightly coloured sparks behind it.

Via BBC

Written by Nokgiir

September 19, 2011 at 2:48 am

Japan’s citizen scientists map radiation, DIY-style

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With the Japanese government only providing spotty information about the radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in the early days after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a group of tech-minded citizen scientists set out to fill in the “black holes” in the knowledge base.

They did so by crafting their own Geiger counters and handing them out to volunteers in the disaster area to measure the fallout. Months later, they have assembled thousands of radiation readings plotted on maps that they hope will one day be an invaluable resource for researchers studying the impact of the meltdown at the crippled nuclear complex.

Volunteer Toshikatsu Watanabe, left, and Safecast’s Kalin Kozhuharov take radiation measurements in Koriyama, Japan.

The volunteer network of scientists, tech enthusiasts and residents of Japan collectively known as Safecast (an amalgam of “safety” and “broadcast”) sprang to life in the weeks after the devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, cutting off power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and knocking out its backup generators. That shut down the plant’s cooling system, triggering meltdowns or partial meltdowns in three of the plant’s four reactors, followed by explosions that released radioactive substances into the air and allowed contaminated water to leak into the ocean.

“For the scientific community, this is a huge chance to further understand what this all means,” said Pieter Franken, co-founder of Safecast and a senior researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, which is collaborating on the project. “Chernobyl was 25 years ago and delivered lots of information. But we’re now in the Internet age, and we have a huge opportunity to do a much better job in measuring it and tracking it.”

Residents in the surrounding areas were understandably alarmed, but in the early days after the disaster, information from the government came in bits and pieces, and was difficult to find.

Franken and Sean Bonner, a Los Angeles-based technology buff involved in numerous online citizen-involved projects, saw an opportunity to use technology to augment the government’s reports and to make the information widely available.

The pair found Uncorked Studios, a Portland, Ore., website development firm, which wanted to map the radiation numbers from all sources “to try to get a better picture of things on a larger scale,” Bonner said.

‘Unknowns’
The initial effort resulted in a map that revealed the dearth of information available: “We realized that there were some massive holes and that the data that was being published was not that specific,” said Bonner. “There would be one reading for an entire city. But we wouldn’t know exactly where in the city that reading was taken.”

With so many “unknowns,” the group decided to buy as many Geiger counters as possible and distribute them to people in the map’s “black holes,” Bonner said. But that wasn’t feasible because the supply of the radiation-measuring devices was limited, he  said.

So Safecast turned to a source they knew well: Hackerspaces, a loose confederation of high-tech tinkerers around the globe.

The TokyoHackerSpace had already drafted a to-do list in the disaster’s aftermath that included radiation monitoring. But with Safecast’s encouragement, the group stepped up its efforts. Members soon figured out how to build basic Geiger counters with Geiger tubes (which measure radiation) purchased through an initial fundraising campaign and modified so they could be attached to vehicles and upload data to the Internet, Christopher Wang, a specialist in sensor networks also known by his hacker nickname of “Akiba,” wrote in an email to msnbc.com.

After meeting Safecast, the hackers decided the best use of the jury-rigged devices would be to drive around taking measurements, allowing one “Geiger counter to cover a huge amount of range,” Wang wrote.

“We put together a custom circuit board that would mount on the outside of a car and had GPS (for timestamp and location data), an input for the Geiger counter, an SD card slot (for data logging), and wireless communication (to send the data inside the car and let the driver know if they are in an area with high radiation),” he said.

Other hackerspaces around the world — such as CRASH space in Los Angeles — soon enlisted in the effort and before long Safecast had the resources to launch an ambitious measuring and mapping effort.

Components of the jury-rigged Geiger counters.

While signing up volunteers, Safecast also developed a training regimen so the recruits would be able to take reliable readings with the instruments and send the data to the group.

Having average citizens involved was crucial, Franken said.

“We want to bring the radiation levels to people’s doorstep, so people can see around their house what is happening,” he said.

Safecast took its first reading on April 16. Today, it has about 50 regular volunteers who collect data from their homes or while driving, build devices or assist in other ways. Those using vehicles equipped with Geiger counters cover an area that Franken estimates to be about 620 miles long by 185 miles wide. To date, they’ve collected 251,000 data points from their drives and fixed reporting stations, and have received about 60,000 more from other sources, including people with their own Geiger counters.

Safecast publishes the data on its website and publishes it to a number of other places so the information can be used by the greatest number of people, Bonner said. It also aggregates radiation data from a number of sources, including the Japanese government.

A Safecast map shows radiation readings from northeastern Japan.

The color-coded maps that Safecast has published don’t always agree with the government’s readings. But Franken said the effort isn’t intended to suggest that the government’s information is bad. The government currently has available a website with the readings of environmental radioactivity level by prefecture.

“We really don’t want to say that the government is wrong,” he said. “And, in fact, in many cases we find that the measurements are fairly much in sync where they are comparable — we have just much more data points and locations measured.”

For example, Safecast’s mapping has revealed some radiation hotspots far from the plant, while other areas closer to it show lower levels. This is due to local weather conditions and air flow, meaning distribution of radioactive materials is not just a matter of proximity, Franken said.

“It’s not so predictable and it really pays to go and map the whole area, and literally find areas that are higher or lower as we go,” he said, noting that in some cases radiation levels can vary by street and even within a home.

“It’s kind of a heavy task because it requires a certain amount of guts to go and do it,” he said of the volunteers, noting he had recently trained a woman and her 12-year-old son in Fukushima City how to measure radiation.

Anxiety
But knowing what the levels are has helped ease some of the anxiety over the radiation exposure, Franken said.

“The measurements may or may not affect people’s decisions but in many cases we see that it more or less gives a sense of confidence that this is what it is and, ‘yeah, I’m going to stay and this is probably going to be manageable,’ or ‘no, I really don’t want to take the risk for my family, I’m going to avoid this.’”

One of the volunteers helping in the effort is Brett Waterman, a 46-year-old Australian who runs an English-language after-school program for children nearly 30 miles from the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. He has been surveying the radiation levels using a Geiger counter mounted on his car.

“There are many people who have decided that the lack of information implied that there was too much risk so they just decided to leave,” he said.

But through his work, he has learned that the radiation levels were low in the area.

“We can’t see it, but if we map it out, like we are doing street by street, we can sort of start to see it in a sense. We can get a picture of what this radiation stuff is,” he said.

His 13-year-old son is a “significant motivator” for him to take the readings. He noted that though residents don’t yet know what the long-term effects of the radiation will be, the information will be key in the future.

“In 10 years or 20 years’ time, you can’t go back to three months after the event and then find out what the data was like. But if we record it now, and then we continue to record it over the months and years to come, then from a scientific and a community point of view there is a database that can be referenced.”

Some researchers and government agencies welcome Safecast’s endeavor. Andrew Maidment, associate professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said the efforts were “necessary and helpful,” though he added two “cautionary notes.”

“The first is that the data are only useful, if it is clear (1) how the measurements were performed and (2) exactly where the measurements are performed,” he wrote in an email to msnbc.com. “In general, it is very easy to get erroneous measurements; consistency in following a specific protocol and lots of practice are necessary to do this right. … However, I will say that the data looks consistent since there are repeated measurements and they are spatially correlated. The second problem is that interpretation of the data is hard. Thus, the use of a color code is questionable.”

Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology did not respond to emails and a call seeking comment on the project.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was not in a position to comment on the initiative, but public affairs officer Scott Burnell noted in an email: “Speaking very generally, significant training and specialized equipment is required to provide the most accurate surveying and analysis of radioactive materials in the environment.”

Franken said Safecast encouraged dialogue with critics and supporters: “We feel that it is good to have an independent measurement available to people … I think just having more is probably better,” he said.

And Bonner said the initiative has the potential to eventually extend far beyond Japan.

“What all of this did sort of brought to light the fact that this data doesn’t exist in the quantities that it should and is not as readily available as would be helpful,” he said. “So while Japan is the focus at the moment, you know, longer term we sort of are shifting to a global outlook. There is a lot more ground to cover once everything in Japan is wrapped up.”

 

Via MSNBC/Miranda Leitsinger

Secrets of Giant Cloud Holes Revealed

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An airplane-induced hole punch cloud.

Mysterious holes in clouds made by aircraft may owe their huge sizes to a little bit of heat, a new study suggests.

For decades people have seen gargantuan holes form in high, thin clouds made of supercooled water—liquid droplets that are chilled below the freezing point but that don’t have any particles around which ice crystals can form.

In the absense of dust, these cloud droplets can turn to ice if the water gets cooled beyond -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius). At such chilly temperatures the water molecules slow down enough to freeze spontaneously.

Researchers previously knew that plane wings, propellers, and turbines could chill supercooled water via rapid expansion of air in their wakes—making things cold enough to force the liquid to become ice. This mechanism is thought to be what creates hole-punch clouds.

As the water freezes, though, the change of state releases energy in the form of what’s called latent heat, and the role of this heat was suspect.

“I didn’t think the latent heat would be so important, but it drives the whole feedback cycle, in some cases for hours after a plane flies through,” said study co-author Gregory Thompson, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

“That’s why the holes can grow to the size of cities under the right conditions.”

Research Flights Affecting Cloud Data?

The researchers theorized that, as latent heat rises, it carries freshly frozen ice—material that would normally float down—back up into the cloud.

There, supercooled water droplets migrate to the ice crystals, feeding a chain reaction of ice formation. Eventually the ice patch becomes too dense and falls out as a flurry of snow.

To see if latent heat does lead to hole-punch clouds, the researchers ran cloud-model simulations with and without the effect.

The first simulation, which incorporated latent heat, showed that the heat suspended ice in the cloud, powered nearby evaporation, pulled surrounding vapor into the zone of crystallization, and created snow. The model ultimately formed holes in clouds that closely matched real images of the phenomenon.

The simulation without the latent-heat effect didn’t replicate what’s been documented in nature.

Thompson emphasized that this finding almost certainly doesn’t change our understanding of the role of aircraft in global climate. Nor do hole-punch clouds cause significant snowfalls around airports, he said: “It’s likely too minor for that.”

However, researchers “spend an awful lot of time flying through clouds to collect data, which we use to build models that mimic natural clouds. We may be altering that data as we measure it,” he said.

“It’s not a big effect, but it’s something to be mindful of in future atmospheric modeling.”

 

Via NatGeo

UFOs Filmed Over London — Or Not

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For extraterrestrials notoriously shy about making their presence known to Earthlings, they have been making more and more appearances in home videos over the past six months.

One of the most famous was the UFO that appeared over the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, on January 28. Discovery News writer Ian O’Neill published one of the first analyses of the video (based in part on my own investigation), demonstrating that it was “almost certainly a hoax.”

A more comprehensive analysis by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), one of the oldest, largest, and most respected UFO investigation organizations in the world, also later concluded that it was faked.

A few months later, on April 21, another ‘alien’ home video surfaced. This one, allegedly taken in Russia, showed two young men finding an alien body on a rural, snowy farm. It, too, was soon revealed to be a hoax.

Now, right on schedule, comes yet another UFO home video, this one taken in London, England. According to a report in the Daily Mail:

“In the video, the cameraman runs towards the corner of Bolsover Street and Clipstone Street where two other men are already standing, gazing skywards, one of whom is using a mobile phone camera. As the camera is pointed upwards, over the BBC’s Yalding House, three white dots flash across the sky at great speed in a triangle formation, they are very quickly followed by two similar sized white dots. As the camera pans down again, two people on the opposite side of the road can also been seen watching events unfold above them. Then one larger, bright and more slow moving disc-shaped white object appears, circles around briefly and zips off.”

The video, one of at least two similar videos, was posted to YouTube last week and soon went viral over the Web, stirring interest and controversy among believers and skeptics alike.

Though evidence may eventually validate the video, a preliminary analysis strongly suggests that this video, like the others, is a hoax. For one thing, it’s not clear who shot the video, or even when; anonymous eyewitnesses are a red flag.

Furthermore, the UFOs (like the one that appeared in the hoaxed Jerusalem video) are very easy to fake with video-editing software, mere spots of light without structure or detail.

Adding fuel for the skeptical grist, it seems that no one else on the busy London street near the British Broadcasting Building saw the many bright glowing objects in the sky. Logic suggests that there would have been thousands of eyewitnesses, yet the cameraman captured an event that apparently no one else saw.

It’s also suspicious that though the video shows others recording the amazing event, no other photos or videos from the same angle have surfaced. Surely one of the other UFO eyewitnesses present (and seen in the video) would have come forward in the past weeks to sell their own photographs or videos to a newspaper or television station — perhaps the BBC would be interested, since it occurred above their building.

Faked UFO videos may be fun for hoaxers (or as viral marketing), but even many people firmly convinced that UFOs are real are getting tired of the hoaxes. After all, how will we know when the real UFO videos surface? No one likes to be fooled, and the best preventative is to examine all the evidence with a sense of history and a skeptical eye.

 

Via Discovery

China building an army of unmanned military drones ‘to rival the U.S.’

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America’s success with unmanned military drones has sparked a ‘global rush’ for weaponised and surveillance aircrafts, according to a new report.

Over 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones or started their own development programmes to step up military capacity in recent years.

And experts say China, having only unveiled its first drone at an air show five years ago, is on the fast track to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that rival U.S. technology.

Drone: The UAV WJ-600, unveiled at the Zhuhai air show in southern China in November

Drone: The UAV WJ-600, unveiled at the Zhuhai air show in southern China in November.

Experts told the Washington Post America’s ‘cheap weapons, reconnaissance abilities, and ease of use, could make drones the standard for many application.’

The recent spike, they say, is ‘because no nation is exporting weaponised drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies.’ And China is seeking to take a piece of the market.

Twenty five UAVs were unveiled the Zhuhai air show in southern China last November, designed and produced by China’s ASN Technology Group, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC).

At the show, a crowd gathered around an armed, jet-propelled drone called the WJ-600, where a video demonstrated the aircraft locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan.

The drone is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack.

Other models were designed to fire missiles, and one, powered by a jet engine, has the capability to fly faster than the Predator and Reaper drones the U.S. has used on missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the report.

Cheaper alternative: America's Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper drone, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet's $150million price tag

Cheaper alternative: America’s Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper drone, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet’s $150million price tag.

It was a record number for the country, which until recently, had not extended its military capacity to include UAVs.

The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that while military and aviation experts said China’s drones are presumed to be several years behind the U.S., the country is on the fast track to catching up.

Retired Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, the former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the Air Force, told the Washington Post: ‘We are well ahead in having established systems actively in use. But the capability of other countries will do nothing but grow.’

The industry is expected to boom over the next decade; according to a 2011 market study by the Teal Group in Fairfax, global spending on drones will double to $94billion by 2021.

Much of China’s progress remains secret.

Capabilities: The UAV WJ-600 was shown locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan in a video demonstration at the Zhuhai air show

Capabilities: The UAV WJ-600 was shown locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan in a video demonstration at the Zhuhai air show.

In action: The unmanned drowne is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack

In action: The unmanned drowne is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack.

Exhibitors of the 25 UAVs did not disclose which aircrafts were fully operational.

However, the Wall Street Journal confirmed at least two propeller-powered UAVs had been deployed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Zhang Qiaoliang, a representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, which manufactures many of the most advanced military aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army, told the Washington Post: ‘The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market.’

U.S. anxiety about China’s UAVs was highlighted in a report released last November by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reported the Journal.

Surveillance: The unmanned jet-propelled aerial vehicle narrows in on its target

Surveillance: The unmanned jet-propelled aerial vehicle narrows in on its target.

Mission accomplished: The aircraft carrier is targeted and blasted with missiles off the coast of Taiwan

Mission accomplished: The aircraft carrier is targeted and blasted with missiles off the coast of Taiwan.

‘The PLA Air Force has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat purposes,’ the report read.

It cited the Pentagon, continuing: ‘In addition, China is developing a variety of medium and high-altitude long-endurance unmanned vehicles, which when deployed will expand the PLA Air Force’s options for long-range reconnaissance and strikes.’

And other countries are following the lead; around the world UAVs are being seen as cheap and effective alternative to manned aircraft. America’s Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5million, compared to an F-22 fighter jet’s $150million price tag.

According to the Washington Post, Israel trails the U.S. as the second-largest drone manufacturer, and has flown armed models; India also announced this year it is developing armed drones that will fly at 30,000ft.

Russia has shown models of drones with weapons, but it is unknown if they are fully operational; and Pakistan has said it plans to obtain armed drones from China, according to the report.

Kenneth Anderson, a professor of law at American University who studies the legal questions surrounding the use of drones in warfare, said: ‘This is the direction all aviation is going. Everybody will wind up using this technology because it’s going to become the standard for many, many applications of what are now manned aircraft.’

 

 

Via DailyMail

Solstice Sun Storm May Spark Dazzling Northern Lights Today

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Norwegian photographer and skywatcher Terje Sorgjerd created an amazing video of the March 2011 auroras, or northern lights, which appear in this still from his project, entitiled "The Aurora.”

Norwegian photographer and skywatcher Terje Sorgjerd created an amazing video of the March 2011 auroras, or northern lights, which appear in this still from his project, entitiled “The Aurora.” CREDIT: Terje Sorgjerd

A wave of sun particles unleashed during a strong solar flare this week is arriving at Earth today (June 24) and could touch off a dazzling northern lights display, NASA officials say.

The solar storm occurred Tuesday, June 21, during Earth’s solstice, which marked the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

The storm triggered a powerful explosion on the sun, called a coronal mass ejection, which sent a vast wave of solar particles directly at Earth at a speed of about 1.4 million mph (2.3 million kph). Those particles are now buffeting Earth’s magnetic field in interactions that could amplify the planet’s polar auroras, also known as the northern and southern lights.

“High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras,” officials with NASA’s Goddard Space Center said in an update today.

Sun photo of June 21, 2011 solar storm and eruption

The SOHO sun observatory caught this view of a large solar flare and coronal mass ejection (top of sun) erupting from the sun’s surface early June, 21, 2011. CREDIT: SOHO/NASA/ESA

Supercharged auroras

Auroras occur when solar wind particles collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The interaction excites the atoms, which then emit light (the aurora) as they return to their normal energy level.

Tuesday’s solar flare registered as a class C7.7 flare (C-class flares are the weakest types of flares), but lasted for several hours. There are three classes of solar flares. M-class solar flares are medium-strength flares, while the most intense solar storms register as X-class flares.

There is a 30 percent to 35 percent chance of a minor geomagnetic storm in Earth’s atmosphere today from this week’s storm, NASA officials said.

 

Partial Halo Coronal Mass Ejection

A broadly widening cloud of particles, observed by SOHO’s C3 coronagraph, rushed away from the Sun as a coronal mass ejection (CME) erupted over about 12 hours (June 14, 2011). Data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows an eruptive prominence breaking away from the Sun about where the event originated. While the originating event did not appear to be substantial, the particle cloud was pretty impressive. The bright circle with an extending horizontal line (above and left of the blue occulting disk) is a distortion caused by the brightness of planet Mercury. CREDIT: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

The active sun

This week’s solar flare was detected by the space-based Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) operated by NASA and the European Space Agency. It came just weeks after another strong solar flare on June 7, which unleashed a massive coronal mass ejection that stunned astronomers with its intensity.

The June 7 event  kicked up a wave of plasma that rained back down on the sun over an area 75 times the width of Earth. The leading edge of the particles that erupted from the sun were traveling at about 3.5 million mph (5.7 million kph), SOHO officials have said.

Another coronal mass ejection on June 14 unleashed an eerie wave of material that formed a partial halo as it expanded into space.

The most severe solar storms, when aimed at Earth, can pose a danger to astronauts in space, satellites and even ground-based communications and power systems. This week’s solar flare, however, is not powerful enough to pose a serious risk, NASA officials said.

The sun is currently in an active period of its 11-year solar cycle. NASA and other space and weather agencies are keeping a close watch on the sun using space-based observatories, satellites and ground-based monitoring systems.

 

Via Space

Fusion Experiment Faces New Hurdles

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The world’s most-ambitious nuclear experiments have escalated at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Federal researchers there are seeking to fuse some of the lightest atoms in the universe to study — and hopefully harness — the type of energy produced by hydrogen bombs and the sun.

The tests were delayed six months while safety devices were installed to protect workers from radiation at the National Ignition Facility, a stadium-sized laboratory that contains 192 lasers trained on a target the size of a BB. The goal is to generate temperatures of more than 100 million degrees to fuse hydrogen atoms and release nuclear energy.

Scientists describe this process, which they hope to achieve next year, as the creation of a miniature star on earth.

But the $3.5 billion ignition facility, derided by some critics as taxpayer-financed science fiction, is running into new challenges that may further delay and perhaps scuttle its goal.

Among those challenges is the unanticipated presence of particles that clog filters designed to prevent the escape of radioactive material. Officials have proposed bypassing the filters for some experiments and venting radioactive particles directly into the air.

Officials say the radiation risks to people living in the surrounding area and to Lawrence Livermore researchers not involved with the experiments will be negligible. But according to a worst-case scenario outlined in a draft environmental report, an average of one worker involved in the experiments could die every 18 years from cancer caused by radiation exposure.

Tri-Valley CAREs, a watchdog group that monitors Lawrence Livermore, argues that the National Nuclear Security Agency, which financed construction of the facility, should not allow an increase in the amount of radiation produced by the fusion project.

“There is no safe level of exposure,” said Marylia Kelley, the group’s executive director.

The ignition facility was designed to help the United States government monitor the safety of nuclear weapons without having to test them. One of its primary missions is to help improve the United States’ weapons arsenal, but officials also describe the facility as an effort to revolutionize nuclear power.

If researchers can fuse atoms and control the energy that is released, an era of abundant carbon-free power could dawn. The technology would minimize the waste and storage issues faced by fission-based nuclear power plants, which split heavy atoms into smaller ones.

The tipping point for nuclear fusion is “ignition,” the moment when the lasers release the same amount of energy that is required to power them.

But that goal has remained elusive.

“If it was easy, we would have done it 50 years ago,” said Doug Eddy, a senior nuclear security agency operations manager working on the project.

Mr. Eddy said the ignition facility was engaged in a “tuning campaign,” raising the amount of fuel used and the amount of energy generated by the lasers.

“You keep bringing it up a bit more and more and more,” he said. “You don’t want to go big-time straight off the bat.”

Researchers have discovered that more power will be needed for some tests than first thought, Mr. Eddy said. They propose nearly tripling the amount of laser power to 120 megajoules, roughly the equivalent amount of energy produced by 50 pounds of TNT, which will increase radiation levels.

The types of hydrogen that will be fused are called deuterium and tritium. Tritium is radioactive, and fine molecular filters are installed at the facility to prevent it from escaping.

But the tritium is proving difficult to manage. The molecules are so small that other tiny atoms are also captured in the filters. Workers frequently enter the experiment chamber to change the clogged filters.

To solve that problem, officials propose allowing more tritium to accumulate before the filters are removed and sent to Nevada as low-level radioactive waste.

More controversially, the officials have proposed bypassing the filters during some experiments and venting tritium through an exhaust system into the air.

Tritium dissolves in water, persists for decades in the environment and can cause cancer.

“It will bind to DNA, so it gets pretty much everywhere in the body once it’s been absorbed,” said Mark Little, a senior scientist at the National Cancer Institute who has published papers dealing with tritium’s hazards. “With large quantities, damage can be done. As long as the releases are kept within mandatory limits, I would imagine the risks are small.”

Officials at the Department of Energy say the tritium releases at Lawrence Livermore would remain below safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But Tri-Valley CAREs points to a long list of tritium accidents and airborne releases from Livermore facilities, which have caused radioactive material to accumulate in Livermore’s water, food, honey and wine.

“When tritium gets into the environment and it’s on top of radiation being released from other parts of the laboratory, it potentially increases the dose and potentially increases the risk,” Ms. Kelley said.

And tritium is not her organization’s only concern, she added.

When tritium and deuterium fuse to create helium, a neutron is squeezed out and radiation is released. The neutrons can seep out of the building and rise into the atmosphere, where they cause additional radiation called skyshine to rain back down.

“If it’s high-enough energy, it can scatter and go up to the atmosphere, scatter in the atmosphere and bounce back down,” Mr. Eddy said. “Where it will scatter down is mostly around the site, but there’s no guarantee.”

Officials said that they would determine an area around the Livermore building where radiation might exceed federal safety standards and that Livermore personnel not involved with the research would be evacuated from those areas. Employees will be warned not to enter the area until after the experiment.

Despite several delays, Mr. Eddy said he was confident that ignition would occur next year. But some scientists question whether ignition will ever be possible.

“It’s a tough job, and some of the peer review questioned whether it would work,” said Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University physics professor and former science adviser to President Bill Clinton. “I think there are still skeptics out there.”

 

Via NYTimes

Japan nuclear: Radiation halts water clean-up

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Operators of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant have suspended an operation to clean contaminated water hours after it began due to a rapid rise in radiation.

Some 110,000 tonnes of water have built up during efforts to cool reactors hit by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. The contaminated water, enough to fill 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools, has been at risk of spilling into the sea. The disaster caused meltdown at three of the reactors, and radiation leaks. It is the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. The powerful earthquake and the tsunami it generated are now known to have killed more than 15,280 people, while nearly 8,500 remain unaccounted for.

Radioactive sludge?

A spokesman for the plant operators, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), said engineers were trying to find the cause of the jump in radiation levels. “The level of radiation at a machine to absorb caesium has risen faster than our initial projections,” the spokesman said.

He added that until they knew what was causing the rising levels they would not know when the operation would be able to resume.

“But I’d say it’s not something that would take weeks,” he added.

Dealing with the radioactive water is a key step to bringing the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant under control, reports the BBC’s Roland Buerk from Tokyo.

It is the rainy season in Japan and the pools of contaminated water could overflow, adding to radiation already released into the sea, adds our correspondent.

Earlier this week, officials had warned the radioactive pools were in danger of spilling into the sea within a week.

The Fukushima power station went into meltdown after its cooling systems were crippled by March’ s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The teams at the plant suspect the radiation rise may be linked to sludge flowing into the machinery intended to absorb caesium or the pipes surrounding it. The tsunami destroyed both power and back-up generators at the plant, breaking the cooling systems. The three unstable reactors are supposed to be brought to “a stable and cold shutdown” by January 2012. Despite the setbacks Tepco says it is still on track to meet that deadline.

 

Via BBC

Fukushima: It’s much worse than you think

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Scientific experts believe Japan’s nuclear disaster to be far worse than governments are revealing to the public.

“Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind,” Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president.

Japan’s 9.0 earthquake on March 11 caused a massive tsunami that crippled the cooling systems at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan. It also led to hydrogen explosions and reactor meltdowns that forced evacuations of those living within a 20km radius of the plant.

Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator with 39 years of nuclear power engineering experience, managing and coordinating projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the US, says the Fukushima nuclear plant likely has more exposed reactor cores than commonly believed.

“Fukushima has three nuclear reactors exposed and four fuel cores exposed,” he said, “You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactor cores because of the fuel cores, and they are all in desperate need of being cooled, and there is no means to cool them effectively.”

TEPCO has been spraying water on several of the reactors and fuel cores, but this has led to even greater problems, such as radiation being emitted into the air in steam and evaporated sea water – as well as generating hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive sea water that has to be disposed of.

“The problem is how to keep it cool,” says Gundersen. “They are pouring in water and the question is what are they going to do with the waste that comes out of that system, because it is going to contain plutonium and uranium. Where do you put the water?”

Even though the plant is now shut down, fission products such as uranium continue to generate heat, and therefore require cooling.

“The fuels are now a molten blob at the bottom of the reactor,” Gundersen added. “TEPCO announced they had a melt through. A melt down is when the fuel collapses to the bottom of the reactor, and a melt through means it has melted through some layers. That blob is incredibly radioactive, and now you have water on top of it. The water picks up enormous amounts of radiation, so you add more water and you are generating hundreds of thousands of tons of highly radioactive water.”

Independent scientists have been monitoring the locations of radioactive “hot spots” around Japan, and their findings are disconcerting.

“We have 20 nuclear cores exposed, the fuel pools have several cores each, that is 20 times the potential to be released than Chernobyl,” said Gundersen. “The data I’m seeing shows that we are finding hot spots further away than we had from Chernobyl, and the amount of radiation in many of them was the amount that caused areas to be declared no-man’s-land for Chernobyl. We are seeing square kilometres being found 60 to 70 kilometers away from the reactor. You can’t clean all this up. We still have radioactive wild boar in Germany, 30 years after Chernobyl.”

Radiation monitors for children

Japan’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters finally admitted earlier this month that reactors 1, 2, and 3 at the Fukushima plant experienced full meltdowns.

TEPCO announced that the accident probably released more radioactive material into the environment than Chernobyl, making it the worst nuclear accident on record.

Meanwhile, a nuclear waste advisor to the Japanese government reported that about 966 square kilometres near the power station – an area roughly 17 times the size of Manhattan – is now likely uninhabitable.

In the US, physician Janette Sherman MD and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano published an essay shedding light on a 35 per cent spike in infant mortality in northwest cities that occurred after the Fukushima meltdown, and may well be the result of fallout from the stricken nuclear plant.

The eight cities included in the report are San Jose, Berkeley, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Portland, Seattle, and Boise, and the time frame of the report included the ten weeks immediately following the disaster.

“There is and should be concern about younger people being exposed, and the Japanese government will be giving out radiation monitors to children,” Dr MV Ramana, a physicist with the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University who specialises in issues of nuclear safety.

Dr Ramana explained that he believes the primary radiation threat continues to be mostly for residents living within 50km of the plant, but added: “There are going to be areas outside of the Japanese government’s 20km mandatory evacuation zone where radiation is higher. So that could mean evacuation zones in those areas as well.”

Gundersen points out that far more radiation has been released than has been reported.

“They recalculated the amount of radiation released, but the news is really not talking about this,” he said. “The new calculations show that within the first week of the accident, they released 2.3 times as much radiation as they thought they released in the first 80 days.”

According to Gundersen, the exposed reactors and fuel cores are continuing to release microns of caesium, strontium, and plutonium isotopes. These are referred to as “hot particles”.

“We are discovering hot particles everywhere in Japan, even in Tokyo,” he said. “Scientists are finding these everywhere. Over the last 90 days these hot particles have continued to fall and are being deposited in high concentrations. A lot of people are picking these up in car engine air filters.”

Radioactive air filters from cars in Fukushima prefecture and Tokyo are now common, and Gundersen says his sources are finding radioactive air filters in the greater Seattle area of the US as well.

The hot particles on them can eventually lead to cancer.

“These get stuck in your lungs or GI tract, and they are a constant irritant,” he explained, “One cigarette doesn’t get you, but over time they do. These [hot particles] can cause cancer, but you can’t measure them with a Geiger counter. Clearly people in Fukushima prefecture have breathed in a large amount of these particles. Clearly the upper West Coast of the US has people being affected. That area got hit pretty heavy in April.”

Blame the US?

In reaction to the Fukushima catastrophe, Germany is phasing out all of its nuclear reactors over the next decade. In a referendum vote this Monday, 95 per cent of Italians voted in favour of blocking a nuclear power revival in their country. A recent newspaper poll in Japan shows nearly three-quarters of respondents favour a phase-out of nuclear power in Japan.

Why have alarms not been sounded about radiation exposure in the US?

Nuclear operator Exelon Corporation has been among Barack Obama’s biggest campaign donors, and is one of the largest employers in Illinois where Obama was senator. Exelon has donated more than $269,000 to his political campaigns, thus far. Obama also appointed Exelon CEO John Rowe to his Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Dr Shoji Sawada is a theoretical particle physicist and Professor Emeritus at Nagoya University in Japan.
He is concerned about the types of nuclear plants in his country, and the fact that most of them are of US design.

“Most of the reactors in Japan were designed by US companies who did not care for the effects of earthquakes,” Dr Sawada told Al Jazeera. “I think this problem applies to all nuclear power stations across Japan.”

Using nuclear power to produce electricity in Japan is a product of the nuclear policy of the US, something Dr Sawada feels is also a large component of the problem.

“Most of the Japanese scientists at that time, the mid-1950s, considered that the technology of nuclear energy was under development or not established enough, and that it was too early to be put to practical use,” he explained. “The Japan Scientists Council recommended the Japanese government not use this technology yet, but the government accepted to use enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power stations, and was thus subjected to US government policy.”

As a 13-year-old, Dr Sawada experienced the US nuclear attack against Japan from his home, situated just 1400 metres from the hypocentre of the Hiroshima bomb.

“I think the Fukushima accident has caused the Japanese people to abandon the myth that nuclear power stations are safe,” he said. “Now the opinions of the Japanese people have rapidly changed. Well beyond half the population believes Japan should move towards natural electricity.”

A problem of infinite proportions

Dr Ramana expects the plant reactors and fuel cores to be cooled enough for a shutdown within two years.

“But it is going to take a very long time before the fuel can be removed from the reactor,” he added. “Dealing with the cracking and compromised structure and dealing with radiation in the area will take several years, there’s no question about that.”

Dr Sawada is not as clear about how long a cold shutdown could take, and said the problem will be “the effects from caesium-137 that remains in the soil and the polluted water around the power station and underground. It will take a year, or more time, to deal with this”.

Gundersen pointed out that the units are still leaking radiation.

“They are still emitting radioactive gases and an enormous amount of radioactive liquid,” he said. “It will be at least a year before it stops boiling, and until it stops boiling, it’s going to be cranking out radioactive steam and liquids.”

Gundersen worries about more earthquake aftershocks, as well as how to cool two of the units.

“Unit four is the most dangerous, it could topple,” he said. “After the earthquake in Sumatra there was an 8.6 [aftershock] about 90 days later, so we are not out of the woods yet. And you’re at a point where, if that happens, there is no science for this, no one has ever imagined having hot nuclear fuel lying outside the fuel pool. They’ve not figured out how to cool units three and four.”

Gundersen’s assessment of solving this crisis is grim.

“Units one through three have nuclear waste on the floor, the melted core, that has plutonium in it, and that has to be removed from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “Somehow, robotically, they will have to go in there and manage to put it in a container and store it for infinity, and that technology doesn’t exist. Nobody knows how to pick up the molten core from the floor, there is no solution available now for picking that up from the floor.”

Dr Sawada says that the creation of nuclear fission generates radioactive materials for which there is simply no knowledge informing us how to dispose of the radioactive waste safely.

“Until we know how to safely dispose of the radioactive materials generated by nuclear plants, we should postpone these activities so as not to cause further harm to future generations,” he explained. “To do otherwise is simply an immoral act, and that is my belief, both as a scientist and as a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing.”

Gundersen believes it will take experts at least ten years to design and implement the plan.

“So ten to 15 years from now maybe we can say the reactors have been dismantled, and in the meantime you wind up contaminating the water,” Gundersen said. “We are already seeing Strontium [at] 250 times the allowable limits in the water table at Fukushima. Contaminated water tables are incredibly difficult to clean. So I think we will have a contaminated aquifer in the area of the Fukushima site for a long, long time to come.”

Unfortunately, the history of nuclear disasters appears to back Gundersen’s assessment.

“With Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now with Fukushima, you can pinpoint the exact day and time they started,” he said, “But they never end.”

 

Via AJTV