Saturday, November 12, 2011

Week ending 11/12

Sorry, been moving. Here's some of this week's wonders.

1. Toxic Russian Mars Probe Heads Back to Earth

It's hard to believe that only last week we were getting excited for Russia's first interplanetary mission in 15 years to launch. By now, we should be happy in the knowledge that the ambitious -- and awesome -- mission is powering through space, toward the Martian moon Phobos.
The reality is that we are now discussing uncontrolled reentry scenarios.
As if that wasn't enough bad news, we are looking at an uncontrolled toxic reentry scenario. Phobos-Grunt -- correctly written "Fobos-Grunt," meaning "Phobos-Soil" or "Phobos-Ground" -- is fully-laden with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide; that's ten tons of fuel and oxidizer. The probe itself weighs-in at only three tons.

The majority of the fuel will likely vaporize during reentry, but everyone will be hoping for a splash-down in an ocean (which covers two-thirds of Earth, fortunately), as the wreckage will still be hazardous. There's also a small quantity of radioactive cobalt-57 in one of the science missions housed in the probe -- a fact that will most likely cause a media frenzy.
It is for these reasons that the Russian media is dubbing Phobos-Grunt "Most toxic falling satellite ever."
(NOTE: At time of writing, there is no official word from the Russian space agency about the Phobos-Grunt situation.)
Though Russian mission controllers are frantically trying to regain control of the craft, it's not looking good. Today's efforts are widely regarded as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the mission. Other space agencies such as NASA and ESA have offered to assist, but it's looking like the probe is quickly becoming unrecoverable.
"Last night there were several attempts to obtain telemetry information from the unit. All of them ended with a zero result. The probability of saving the (probe) is very, very small," an anonymous industry source told Interfax (translated from Russian).
Since Phobos-Grunt was placed in low-Earth orbit (LEO) on Tuesday, and the probe successfully separated from its booster rocket, its attached cruise stage rocket has yet to light up, providing a critical two burns to blast the probe away from Earth to begin its planned 10-month journey to the Red Planet.
ANALYSIS: Russia's Mars Mission May Be In Trouble
It is unknown whether there's a software error or hardware glitch, but attempts to upload new commands to the on board computers have so far failed to change the situation. Phobos-Grunt's batteries are draining and its orbit is degrading. It looks as if the probe will reenter later this month/early December. NORAD is putting a Nov. 26 reentry date on Phobos-Grunt.
And guess what? This will be the third large piece of space junk to reenter in an uncontrolled manner this year. In September, NASA's 6-ton UARS atmospheric satellite burned-up over the Pacific. In October, the German 2.4-ton ROSAT X-ray space mission reentered over the Bay of Bengal. Could November be the third consecutive reentry month?
Like UARS and ROSAT, the likely Phobos-Grunt reentry will be uncontrolled and at the mercy of a highly dynamic upper atmosphere. Also, the probe's orbit takes it between the latitudes 51.4 degrees North to 51.4 degrees South -- most of the world's population lives within that zone, and Phobos-Grunt could come down anywhere. Despite the fact that pieces of the probe will hit the ground, it is still extremely unlikely it will cause death and destruction, however.
NEWS: Russia Aims For Mars Moon
The demise of Phobos-Grunt will be a huge loss to the scientific community. Not only was the mission designed to land and scoop-up some regolith (dust and rock) from Phobos' surface, returning it to Earth for analysis, it is also carrying a fascinating Planetary Society experiment called the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, or "LIFE."
LIFE is composed of many different types of bacteria to small organisms that seem to tolerate the space environment pretty well. Tardigrades -- known as water bears -- were also a part of the payload.
What was the point of sending microscopic organisms to a Martian moon?
In an effort to understand how life appeared on Earth, the experiment would have put the hypothesis of "panspermia" to the test. Panspermia is a proposed mechanism by with life may "hop" from one planetary body to the next -- meteorites slamming into Mars, say, ejecting many tons of debris into space. Should any organisms be "hitching a ride" on the debris, could they (or at least their genetic information) survive the interplanetary journey, and atmospheric entry, to spawn life on another world?
Alas, the LIFE experiment has been cut short. The first Chinese Mars satellite, Yinghuo-1, was also hitching a ride and won't go any further than LEO either.
So what now? As we await the inevitable reentry of Phobos-Grunt, it would appear the Russian authorities are looking for someone to blame after a string of mission failures. According to a (translated) Interfax bulletin, an anonymous (expert) source indicated this may force reform in the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. Also, "a number of positions of responsible persons" could face jail time.
I think it's about time we ask those tardigrades for a favor...
Image: An artist's impression of Phobos-Grunt in Mars orbit (ROSCOSMOS/edit by Discovery News)

2.  Shouting "Allahu Akbar," Issa Islam "did not stop, but rather stepped on the gas and continued his killing spree" -- his lawyer says it was an "accident"

Automobile accidents, jihadi style: "Killing rampage suspect goes on trial," by Naama Cohen-Friedman for Ynet News, November 10 (thanks to The Religion of Peace):
The trial of Issa Ibrahim Islam, a truck driver who went on a killing rampage on Nakba Day, opened at the Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday. The Kfar Kassem resident is accused of killing 29 year-old Aviv Morag and injuring 17 others while recklessly driving a truck along Bar-Lev Street in Tel Aviv last May. The driver also ran over several vehicles during the rampage.
A psychiatric evaluation submitted by the prosecution found Islam fit to stand trial, and determined that the defendant was lucid while he committed the act.
During the hearing, eyewitness recounted the horrors of that Sunday morning, as they were commuting to work and school: "He screamed 'Allahu Akbar' and then threw the traffic light on my head," recalled Shani Oz, one of the witnesses.
"The truck collided into my car and the back windshield shattered to pieces," said Amitai Asif, "People were scared. I had blood all over my face even after being taken into the ambulance," he noted.
According to the indictment, Islam carried on with his rampage even after colliding into several vehicles. "The defendant did not stop, but rather stepped on the gas and continued his killing spree," the indictment read.
The trial opened a week after David Morag, the father of the victim killed during the rampage, committed suicide.
"Aviv was his whole world," said a friend of the family, "The last few months were very difficult for him, and the holidays were even twice as hard."
Islam's defense attorney, Yehosua Resnik, rejected the accusations, claiming that "the incident was nothing more than an accident that went wrong."
Shame on you, Yehosua Resnik.

3. Making $$ on Wall Street

Jay-Z is releasing a new line of T-shirts in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement Friday via his Rocawear clothing label, but he doesn’t plan to share any of the profits with the protesters. The rapper was recently seen wearing one of the shirts, which tweaks the phrase “Occupy Wall Street” by crossing out the “W” and adding an “S” to make it read “Occupy All Streets.”
The protests, which started Sept. 17 in New York, have since spread to Los Angeles and other cities as demonstrators protest corporate greed and corruption.
The Business Insider noted the “irony” in that Jay-Z has no intention to distribute any of the proceeds to protestors.

4. Holder is definitely not a keeper...

Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry died almost one year ago. Despite almost daily headlines about the ongoing scandal in the Obama administration, his devastated parents have said nothing publicly about the U.S. program that helped provide the weapons that killed their son.  Until now. 
In separate interviews, Josephine and Kent Terry lashed out Thursday at those they blame for Brian's murder -- Attorney General Eric Holder, his top assistant Lanny Breuer, former U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, and those ATF officials who approved, executed and supervised Operation Fast and Furious. 

The Terrys watched Holder’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Asked if he wanted to apologize to the family, Holder declined, saying only he regretted what happened.
“That shows what kind of a person he is,” Kent lamented. “To me, he is not much of a person. I don’t know if he has a son. But if he lost his, he would think different.”
“I sat in a chair and cried,” Josephine said. “It was so inhumane. An apology to anybody means at least they are trying to fix it. He didn’t.”
Blasted for his response, Holder did send the Terrys a letter Wednesday saying he was sorry for their loss. The letter was released to the press before the Terrys received it.

5. Oregon Police Fear 'Occupy' Protesters Arming Themselves for Looming Confrontation

Portland police believe that some protesters inside the Occupy Portland encampments are building shields and makeshift weapons -- including nails hammered into wood -- in preparation for when authorities attempt to clear the parks this weekend, police said Friday.
Occupy Portland organizers have repeatedly said the movement is nonviolent and have appealed to demonstrators to resist peacefully when the camps close at midnight on Saturday. They planned public marches and a potluck dinner before the deadline and hoped the public would take part.

But police said as many as 150 anarchists may come to Portland to take part in a possible clash with officers. "If there are anarchists, if there are weapons, if there is an intention to engage in violence and confrontation, that obviously raises our concerns," Portland police Lt. Robert King said. "But I know we'll be able work through that and manage that, because we want to protect everyone there, especially the peaceful protester." Mayor Sam Adams has ordered the camp shut down, citing unhealthy conditions and the encampment's attraction of drug users and thieves. Protest organizers responded angrily to the police warning on Friday, saying in a statement that the police are trying to "defame" the movement by attributing the actions of individuals to the movement as a whole. "Anyone that is engaging in violent resistance is doing so in direct contradiction to the values outlined by the Portland General Assembly" -- the movement's democratic governing body -- "and in doing so is by definition not representing Occupy Portland," the statement said. About 10 demonstrators from Seattle had volunteered to come to Portland on Saturday to "stand in peaceful solidarity," the statement said, but organizers are not calling in a mass influx of out-of-state demonstrators or anarchists. Some people left the encampment on Friday, while others vowed to stay unless taken away in handcuffs. The camp population was noticeably thinner as demonstrators cleaned up portions of the park. Some were seen carting away books from the library and dumping articles into trash containers. A handful of people worked on dismantling an intricate kitchen, saying they'll store donated equipment until the movement can regroup. They're appealing to the public to cook food at home and bring it to demonstrators.
"Food is not going to stop unless we're forced to stop," said Marla Baskin, a demonstrator who has helped to organize food service. Baskin said she hoped police would be able to arrest nonviolent demonstrators without force, even if radical elements try to provoke a confrontation. Some demonstrators said they hope the camp may be re-established elsewhere or splintered into several smaller camps to continue the movement, but protest spokesman Jordan LeDoux said in an email "nothing concrete has been decided."
Demonstrators planned marches originating in various locations around Portland on Saturday, ending at the encampments around 5 p.m., followed by a potluck for the public to "celebrate freedom of speech, and support for those who will be arrested," LeDoux said.
The Portland encampment went up Oct. 6 after a march in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Protesters were sheltered by donated tents, fed by donated food and cared for by volunteer doctors and nurses. But it became a magnet for people not originally part of the movement. Sanitary conditions worsened. Businesses complained of theft.
City officials' patience began growing thin when activists sought to occupy another park on Oct. 30. Police dragged away 27 of the activists when they refused to leave.
Protesters marched over two bridges on Nov. 2, but declined to inform police about the march route. That forced officers on bicycles, motorcycles and in squad cars to follow and block traffic for more than an hour. An officer was pushed into a moving bus sometime near the end of the march, police said. He received just minor injuries.

6.Tharsis Tholus --Mar's Spectacular 4 Billion-Year-Old Volcano
 Tharsis Tholus, an extinct 4-billionn year old Martian volcano soars 8 kilometres above the surrounding landscape - almost the height of Earth's Mount Everest. The image above was released yesterday by the European Space Agency. It is a composite of multiple photos taken by a high-resolution stereo camera aboard the Mars Express spacecraft in 2004, with different elevations shown in different colors.
By comparison, rising above the Red Planets frequent dust storms is the Olympus Mons -the tallest known volcano and mountain in our solar system (image bottom of page). The central edifice of this shield volcano stands 27 kilometers ( 88,580 ft) high above the surface -or three times the elevation of Mount Everest above sea level and 2.6 times the height of Mauna Kea above its base. It is 550 km in width, flanked by steep cliffs, and has a caldera complex that is 85 km long, 60 km wide, and up to 3 km deep with six overlapping pit craters. Its outer edge is defined by an escarpment up to 6 km tall; unique among the shield volcanoes of the Red Planet.

In 2004 the Express orbiter imaged old lava flows on the flanks of Olympus Mons. Based on crater size and frequency counts, the surface of this western scarp has been dated from 115 million years in age down to a region that is only 2 million years old -very recent in geological terms, suggesting that the mountain may yet have some ongoing volcanic activity.

Mauna Kea on the Hawaiian Islands is an example of similar shield volcanoes on a smaller scale. The extraordinary size of Olympus Mons is likely because does not have tectonic plates. Thus, the crust remained fixed over a hotspot and the volcano continued to discharge lava. (Image above compares the heights of Mount Everest, Maxwell Montes on Venus, and Olympus Mons).

The mountain, as well as a few other of the volcanoes in the Tharsis region, was visible from Earth to 19th century observers. The astronomer Patrick Moore points out that during dust storms, "Schiaparelli had found that his Nodus Gordis and Olympic Snow were almost the only features to be seen.

But only with the Mariner probes could this be confirmed with certainty. After the Mariner 9 probe had photographed it from orbit in 1972, it became clear that the altitude was much greater than that of any mountain found on Earth, and the name was changed to Olympus Mons. 

7. The End of the Light Bulb as We Know It 

Why Americans are hoarding incandescent bulbs before darkness envelops us all on January 1, 2012.
Belladonna Rogers

November 13, 2011 - 12:49 am
As the pale, weak sun rose beyond a charcoal gray cloud bank on Sunday, November 6th, the first day of the country’s dismal return to Standard Time, it was clear that the moment had come to lighten up.
Soon I was at Home Depot making a beeline for the light bulb aisle.  Why? Because the end of days is drawing nigh.  Not in the Biblical sense, but in the Environmental Protection Agency sense: there were only a scant eight weeks (now only seven) before the end of the light bulb as we know it.  As of January 1, 2012, Americans will have their freedom of light bulb choice snuffed out by an omnibus 2007 law requiring that general-purpose bulbs be 25% more energy-efficient than the current, justly-beloved, incandescent bulb.
There are a few exceptions, but the next 49 days are the last for the sale of 100-watt incandescent bulbs.
An excellent summary of this disaster-in-the-making and the grim options that will follow in its wake is here.
In July, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  As the House debated the ultimately failed repeal, Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who had introduced the doomed measure, argued:
The 2010 elections demonstrated that Americans are fed up with government intrusion. The federal government has crept so deep into our lives that federal agencies now determine what kind of light bulbs the American people are allowed to purchase.
This vivid report from England in 2009 on the last days of the sale of incandescent bulbs there — ordained by a similar European Union ban on traditional bulbs — is a cautionary tale of what we can expect at lighting retailers in the United States on New Year’s Eve 2011. There could be more people at Manhattan’s two Home Depot stores than in Times Square.
As I’ve written here before, part of the meaning of freedom is freedom of choice.  Every green American who wants to read by mercury-ignited compact fluorescent bulbs is free to do so. Every environmentally-motivated citizen who desires energy-efficient halogen bulbs should enjoy that choice, too.  But many of us desire incandescent bulbs, just the way Thomas A. Edison invented them.
You know something nefarious is afoot when the Obama administration trundles out its own personal Nobel laureate (other than the incumbent himself), Energy Secretary Steven Chu, to lecture us — us, the pathetic, scientifically uneducated, financially ignorant, unwashed, energy-profligate, unable-to-balance-our-own-checkbooks fools he takes us to be — on light bulbs:
“Right now many families around the country are struggling to pay their energy bills, and leaders in the House want to roll back these standards that will save families money.…
“You’ll still be able to buy halogen incandescent bulbs. They’ll look and feel the same, but the only difference is that they’ll save consumers money.”
Of tea partiers’s philosophical argument that the law would deprive consumers of the choice of lighting products, Chu said, these standards are not taking choices away, they are “putting money back in the pockets of American families.”
Contrary to Secretary Chu’s disingenuous statement in July, viz., “They’ll look and feel the same,” they neither look nor feel the “same.”  He may be able to fool some of the people some of the time, but I regret to inform Secretary Chu that he can’t fool me — or tens of millions like me– any of the time.
These ghastly light bulbs casting their ghoulish, glary light — all gussied up to appear to resemble the older, familiar bulbs — are the light bulb equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I, for one, did not elect President Obama, nor did I insist that he select Steven Chu to tell me how to “put money back in” my pockets. My pockets are my business, not his.  You look out for your pockets, Secretary Chu, and I’ll look out for mine.
Where do you get off telling me and my fellow Americans, “these standards are not taking choices away”?  It’s obvious you think we’re idiots, but idiots of that magnitude? These standards are unquestionably taking choices away: that’s why 100-watt incandescent bulbs are flying off the shelves at Home Depots nationwide.  Here’s a photo of my purchases from last Sunday alone — not my last foray by a long shot:
All the bulbs I bought were incandescent.  Secretary Chu’s vaunted halogen bulbs hurt my eyes.  And  the highest wattage compact fluorescents available at Home Depot last Sunday were the equivalent of 40 watts of incandescent bulbs.  Maybe Secretary Chu can read by 40-watt bulbs but I can’t.  If you’d like to read the Department of Energy’s guide to compact fluorescent bulbs, try reading it by daylight, here.
Contrary to this president’s view of his compatriots, many of us are adults.  We were children once, but not recently.  We can take care of our pocketbooks all by ourselves. My checkbook is balanced. Is the federal government’s?
The most tragic part of this tale is that it didn’t have to come to this.  No sooner had the Republican Congress announced it would vote to repeal the 2007 law this past July, than the light bulb lobby swooped in to protect the manufacturers’ interests — not, of course, those of the incandescent bulb-loving public:
[The] manufacturers … had begun producing the new bulbs, and feared the rollback of the standards would undermine their investments in developing energy-efficient bulbs. Bulb-maker Philips began an aggressive lobbying campaign, meeting with lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill, urging them not to roll back the light bulb law. They brought along samples of the new bulbs, similar in appearance to the old bulb.
No member of Congress should have been fooled.
The Senate voted against the repeal, and Obama would have vetoed a repeal, but the manufacturers’ heated lobbying was not in the public interest — of course.
Soon, if the Obama administration has its way, we’ll move seamlessly from the diminished light bulb to the energy-efficient vacuum that will take 90 minutes to clean a carpet that now takes five, and an energy-efficient hair-dryer that will require an hour to dry a head of hair now dried in three — in order to “put more dollars in your pocket” as Secretary Chu likes to say.  Of course, vacuuming carpets and drying hair may not be high on his to-do list on any given day.
Which leads us back to Home Depot.  After checking prices on, eBay and a wide variety of online lighting specialty firms, the lowest prices I found were at Home Depot.  They charge $3.97 for an eight-pack of 100-watt incandescent bulbs, with each bulb enjoying a double-life of 1,500 hours.
A word to the wise is sufficient.
—Belladonna Rogers

8.  Court Backs High School in Flap Over American Flag T-Shirts

Published November 13, 2011

A California school principal did not violate the freedom of speech of a group of students who wore American flags on their shirts on Cinco de Mayo when he told them to turn the shirts inside out or go home, a federal judge has ruled.
Citing past clashes between Mexican American and Anglo students over their clothing on the Mexican holiday, Chief U.S. District Judge James Ware of San Francisco said school officials "reasonably forecast that (the shirts) could cause a substantial disruption" and were entitled to take steps to prevent it, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
The case arose in an ethnically charged atmosphere at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill. On the previous Cinco de Mayo, Ware said, a group of Mexican-American students walked around with a Mexican flag, and a group of Anglo students responded by hoisting a makeshift American flag up a tree, chanting "U-S-A" and exchanging profanities and threats with the Latino youths.
While the Supreme Court has ruled that public school students have the right to engage in nondisruptive free speech, that ruling "does not require that school officials wait until disruption occurs before they act," Ware said in his ruling Tuesday dismissing the students' lawsuit, according to the paper.
Mark Posard, a lawyer for the Morgan Hill Unified School District, said Friday that Ware's decision "affirmed that school safety is paramount."
Bill Becker, a lawyer for the youths and their parents, said they would appeal "this bizarre ruling."

That's all for now!

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