Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Our permanent robotic presence in space

Nothing insightful in this post, just something in the "space is cool" category that I hadn't seen written elsewhere.

I remember when the International Space Station's Expedition I crew arrived in November 2000 that news media said it could mark humanity's permanent occupation of space. That may still hold true, although it happened a generation before it probably should have. When I read that, I remember thinking that we missed marking one milestone for our permanent robotic presence in space, three years earlier.

On September 11, 1997, the Mars Global Surveyor probe reached Martian orbit. Since then, humanity has had at least one satellite in Martian orbit. Three are operating right now and more are planned, from multiple nations and not just the US. We'll never leave.

Somewhat surprisingly, we may also have achieved permanent presence on the Martian surface. In early 2004, two rovers landed on the surface, one of them is still working and making important discoveries, and an even more powerful one is set to land there next year. If it doesn't crash, I think it could last long enough to be there when more landers arrive.

So where else? The moon's had lots of visitors, but most of them were short-lived. From Japan'sSelene mission in 2007 onward though, there's lots of overlap that shouldn't end.

I thought figuring out the start of permanent earth orbit would be hard, but not so (and I'm not counting dead probes, btw, a permanent presence requires operational satellites). Looks like the prize goes all the way back to 1958 with the fourth-ever satellite, Vanguard I, which lasted until 1964. The 1962 probe Alouette operated for 10 years, with countless overlaps since its launch.

My guess is that's it, so far. We have operating satellites at Mercury, Venus, the asteroid belt, and Saturn, but none of them will live long enough to be working when replacements arrive. A probe just launched to Jupiter, but radiation makes that a hard place, and it'll be many decades before we get a permanent presence.

As for future milestones, I think Venus will be the first. A Japanese mission got screwed up going there and is mostly crippled, but the first really operational orbiter that gets there will make things permanent, and I'm sure it'll happen within 10 years. The lunar surface won't be that hard either, maybe 15 years.

A proposed lake explorer on Saturn's moon Titan could get there in the 2020s and last long enough to see a Saturn orbiter years later, so 2020s or 2030s for Saturn. The 2040s for Jupiter, arrival for either a distant weather satellite or a communications satellite to relay info from short-lived probes messing around near its major moons.

I've been foolish enough to speculate this far, but now I'll stop, with no guesses about dates for permanent balloon platforms on Venus, permanent anything near Mercury, the asteroid belts, or elsewhere outside of Saturn and Jupiter. This all assumes no near term fiscal collapse or long term Singularity.

Pretty impressive stuff, overall. The human space program may have stalled out in the last 40 years, but what we've done to get our presence beyond earth has not.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Might as well disagree with Andrew Dessler too

From my previous post about the To the Point radio show on climate change, Andrew Dessler also showed up on the show to discuss why climate legislation failed. He said that Obama had one bullet and two targets, and for understandable reasons chose to take aim at the target of health care reform.

The way I'd rephrase that is Obama and the Congressional Democrats chose to take a year and a half to fire one bullet, and that killed the chance to push for a second target. There were legitimate reasons for the strategy, but the shared mistake was in failing to simply get the exact same health care reform done quickly in six months and pronounce it the victory that it was, not just the best compromise they could get through Congress. I agree with Andrew that health care was the key to climate action failing, but there's more to it than that.

I'm making this pronouncement having just bought Eric Pooley's book on this subject, The Climate War. I can proudly say the first three or so pages don't expressly disagree with my thesis. Maybe I'll have more to say when I've finished it.

Monday, August 08, 2011

RP Jr. says strength of climate denialism in the US "not a limiting factor" in US politics

Roger Pielke Jr. on To the Point, which previously had done a good job in picking speakers (speaking around minute 24):

I would say the evidence suggests pretty strongly that public opinion is not a limiting factor in taking effective action on climate change.

All right then. If public opinion is not a limiting factor then you hypothetically could increase public opinion from what it is so that it matches the opinion of climatologists publishing on climate change, 97% of whom accept human effects on climate, and we still wouldn't have passed a climate bill in Congress in '09 or '10. Sounds a little loony to me.

This isn't Roger "The Battle for US Public Opinion on Climate Change is Over" Jr's first attempt to dismiss denialism while demanding people not talk about it. He also concluded that the claim that 57 US Senators accepted climate reality in 2007 was not a problematically low figure. My math places 57 as less than 60, not even taking account the climate realists who bow to lobbyist pressure and the lost potential votes among the 43 who are unlikely to vote to address a problem they doubt exists.

This isn't to say that the forces of denial are going to win in the long run, just that RPJr's dismissal of their influence doesn't sound like sound political science.

Now hidden in his drive to be contrarian is an interesting nugget - back to To the Point:

Public has at least for 20 years been strongly behind climate science and the idea that action needs to be taken. What we have seen is a big partisan divide....It's become part of the culture wars of the United assumption that many scientists and experts carry with them that if only the public understood the science as they understand the science, the public would come to share their values....As a political scientist I look at issues like the debt ceiling or the war in Iraq or the TARP program and when you look at what public opinion was when action was taken on these controversial topics you find out that the strength of public opinion on climate change is at or exceeding the levels for which action was taken for the other issues. So I would say the evidence suggests pretty strongly that public opinion is not a limiting factor in taking effective action on climate change.

The stuff that's not bolded is either wrong or obvious. The bolded stuff, that legislative solutions with equal public support don't get passed at an equal rate suggest there's more to look at. RPJr goes on to say its the voters choosing the economy over their potential long term interest in climate, an Iron Law that's not so irony in practice. I'd suggest that the Iron Law doesn't exist, but that powerful economic interest tied into ideological backwardness can really screw things up in our democracy, especially when the 60 vote requirement in the Senate isn't very democratic.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Flubber arguments are almost as bad as slippery-slope arguments

I've spent the last week-plus swimming in Sierra mountain lakes instead of watching the Republican Party leadership play chicken with the economy. In the run-up to it all, though, I heard a rehashed version of a bad debating point that I'm calling the Flubber Argument.

Flubber was the fictional material in the film The Absent Minded Professor that bounces back with more energy and a higher bounce than is in the kinetic energy used by Flubber to hit a surface. I've criticized the slippery slope argument in other venues as an excuse to support a position that has little direct support, so some indirect consequence are therefore invented. The Flubber Argument is similar.

In a To the Point podcast last month (sorry I can't remember which), a pollster described a Tea Party argument that debt default was an acceptable price to pay in order to learn to live within our means, and that the ultimate effect would be positive. The Flubber Argument, in other words. In my day job, I've also heard the Reverse Flubber Argument - if we succeed in doing something good to protect the environment, that will just incentivize open space developers to get organized and make things worse than they would have been.

Like other bad arguments, it's not completely wrong. Sometimes the blowback is stronger than the initial effect. What I usually fail to hear, however, is an analysis proving why that's going to be the case.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Bow to Mark Levin with the human body temperature theory of global warming

June 23 broadcast, heard it the day before I went to measure melting glaciers. (Main link here, might try this if it still works, and go to Minute 101. Below is a rough transcript; the audio was dodgy.)

Caller: [Caller references how body temperature of many people in an enclosed room will raise its temperature, then continues]....It's amazing that the world hasn't gotten warmer than it has since 1980 when the population went from 3 billion to 8 billion 30 years later, there's just no accounting for that if the greenhouse effect were actually true....

Levin: ....interesting point...if it's man-made, then why aren't we a lot hotter than we are now because of the significant increase in population.

Caller: ....[says billions of people walking around at 98.6 degrees, well above global ambient temperature]

Levin: ....[says it's an "excellent point"]

I think we have a theory that might trump Louis Hissink's geothermal warming for its explanatory power. Eat your heart out, Deltoid.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Enceladus rains water vapor on Saturn - how about microbes?

Badly answered question: 1. Is there life (as we know it) on gas giant planets?

Better answered questions: 2. Can life originate on gas giants? and 3. Can life survive on gas giants?

What I've seen of pop science, and my impression of Planetary Protection standards for spacecraft, is the assumption that because the answer to #2 seems to be "difficult", then the answer to #1 is "unlikely". But what if you drop living microbes through space and into the gas giant atmospheres?

That could be happening on a regular basis with Enceladus shown to drop water vapor from its geysers on to Saturn's atmosphere (blog post at link, pdf of article in the blog post). Enceladus probably has a near surface ocean feeding geysers through cracks in the ice. If it has life, then microbes are also being shot out as the geyser jets freeze.

The water vapor connection to Saturn doesn't necessarily establish that water ice particles will get there, or get there in the same short time frame (<2.5 months) as the vapor, but it makes it more plausible. And there's always the impact delivery of ice chunks from Enceladus to Saturn as a mechanism.

While microbes couldn't survive the deep level heat (which is what would stop life from originating on gas giants), if they can survive long enough to reproduce and randomly spread, then some descendant microbes can escape destruction. All they could need is some weather patterns keeping them out of the deep layers for weeks, unlike the millenia that would be needed for life to originate there.

Besides being interesting and a potential target for astrobiology, there are some policy implications to this. Crashing the Galileo orbiter into Jupiter may have been a mistake - better to have crashed it into Io, Callisto, or Almathea. The plan to eventually deorbit the Cassini mission into Saturn is also mistaken, when the dead-surface moon Mimas makes a better target.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Harm minimization, the space program, and carbon caps

Same Facts has a nice post tying drug addiction and political demagoguery - sometimes you can only aim for health improvements instead of fully quitting the drug, and it's similarly an issue in politics:

Thus, in some cases, the right policy is to give injection drug users access to sterile needles. In others, the right policy is to give grandstanding congressmen some way to pander to ignorant voters without crashing the economy. We all wish that heroin users would stop using. We all wish that Congressmen would not demagogue the debt ceiling. Neither wish will be granted soon.

I invite reflection among those who have low opinions of politicians and simultaneously advocate for perfect solutions at the expense of solutions that are politically feasible. Those two positions work well together if you're primarily interested in expressing contempt, but not if you're trying to make progress.

With the end of the disastrously expensive space shuttle program, the perfect solution is to let the private sector carry on manned "exploration" of areas that robots explored decades ago, and switch the federal government funding to something beneficial. I see little point in talking about that solution.

Harm minimization, or successful harm mitigation, means alternatives that keep most of the federal money in the same states that it's spent in now, even in some of the same institutions in the same states. Obama's plan for partial privatization of the manned space program might be the best feasible option. I've thought about replacing it with something entirely different, an advanced technology rescue service, but that might be a bridge too far. Maybe we can gradually reduce the scale of the program (an aside - Republicans are fighting for the big-government, socialist style old program instead - how typical).

So, carbon cap and trade. Any number of people have pointed out how a simple, universal carbon tax would avoid all the problems of the compromised cap and trade programs in various parts of the world. Australia's example suggests it is possible to get a modest carbon tax through - but one with many exceptions and that transitions into a cap-and-trade scheme.

Taking a harm minimization/benefit maximization approach, rather than a rigid rationality or nothing approach, will get a better result. I'm all for a carbon tax, but won't let that stop me support capntrade as well.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The tipping point range in land use planning is between 1 house per 10 acres and 10 houses per acre

Matt Yglesias has been on a tear for the last year or two on 1. how land use restrictions are NIMBY power grabs that are actually bad for the environment, and 2. conservative libertarians screw up the issue by focusing on land use restrictions in rural areas but not in more developed places.

I think he's got something of a point, but has to be careful not to overplay it. In several places, including my actual work blog, I've written how there are tipping points in the density of development for each environmental value where marginal increases become generally beneficial, and below that point are generally detrimental. See the link for more details, but because the tipping point is a gradual transition in each case, and occurs at a different level of density for each particular environmental value (walkability tipping point is at higher density, farming and open space at lower levels), I think it's better to talk about a tipping point range.

At a residential density of 1 house per 10 acres, I can think of no environmental reason to support a marginal increase in that density. That would reduce the natural habitat value, make farming more difficult, and put more SUVs on the roads that have to drive long distances to get anywhere useful, all for a tiny increase in housing stock. This is where land use restrictions make enormous sense from an environmental viewpoint (and where conservatives put all their efforts to eliminate restrictions). At a density of 10 houses per acre, the reverse is true - the environmental advantages of low density for farming and open space no longer exist and so can't be harmed further, while walkability and public transit use are feasible, and increases in density mean large increases in housing stock.

So I agree with Matt on the high density end but not at the low end, leaving the small matter of the two orders of magnitude in the middle unresolved. I think for most environmental values, though, the tipping point range can be narrowed to fall between 2 residences per acre and 5 residences per acre. Half acre lots have some, modest, value for open space and wildlife. Just as I can think of no environmental reason to slightly increase densities at very low levels, there are few reasons to do so at the half acre lot size or lower. Conversely, increases from 5 residences per acre to something higher can at least add significant housing amounts and get closer to urban densities that reduce driving.

Of course, the useless zone of 2 to 5 residences per acre is what most of suburban construction has created in the last 60 years.

UPDATE: I should add that the policy relevance is primarily regarding rezoning areas that haven't been fully developed, and redevelopment of urban areas. Incremental changes like whether to permit "granny units" on parcels also apply. And as per the comments, all the above is a generalization subject to exceptions. Clustering development can maximize open space, and dense development can be a stupid idea in the wrong place (like a local proposal to put new development in San Francisco Bay).

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Reversals of consensus in medical science

My so-far fruitless quest continues for precedent to the denialist claim of incompetence and corruption in climate science. Some skeptics rely on the Galileo Fallacy - "people laughed at Galileo, people are laughing at me, therefore I am Galileo". Others try and find a more reasonable precedent in the last several centuries, and look to medical science as an example.

So there's an interesting blog post on a paper (the paper's behind a paywall, sadly) on medical retractions, claiming a 13% reversal rate on prior consensus for medical practices. To me, that's kind of high and uncomfortable in thinking about medicine, but its application as precedent doesn't quite work. First, these are claims of reversal, not a broad acceptance that the previous consensus was incorrect. And we're talking about consensus that e.g., a previous surgical practice was helpful when a new study contradicts it, a relatively technical level of detail in medical science. Claims that adding CO2 doesn't warm the planet is closer to contradicting germ theory in medical science, a fundamental consensus that hasn't been overturned.

The paper author also thinks the time interval for reversals to occur is about a decade. The modern consensus on climate goes back at least to the mid-1980s, or late-1800s if you consider the basic science. No precedent here. (UPDATE: per the comments, no consensus in the 1800s on the human effect, but there was a consensus about greenhouse gases and CO2. See the link for more info.)

Skeptics have used ulcers as one example of consensus reversal. It would be interesting to see whether the previous belief that stress caused ulcers was a best guess rather than a foundational theory in medicine. More to the point, though, what does a denialist with an ulcer do for treatment today? I suspect the smarter ones usually rely on consensus, rather than make "argument from authority" statements and attempt to rethink medical science for themselves. When you're looking to take action or make policy, trying to cast aside consensus and reinvent science on your own isn't likely to lead to a happy outcome.

So the quest continues.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Measuring and melting glaciers in Alaska

I've been offline the last two weeks to do a volunteer vacation/vacation in Alaska. As Stoat has mentioned somewhere, volunteering is a great way to ignore your air travel emissions, and this was the third time I've done it by taking GPS measurements of glaciers.

The photo above isn't photoshopped, btw, nor is it my natural complexion. The electric blue lighting inside glacial ice has to be seen to be believed. That photo wasn't inside the glacier we measured though, but a glacial iceberg we recreated in, near Valdez in an outfall lake. As you can see from the photo after the jump, we wouldn't be able to get inside the glacier we measured except by unfortunate accident. Since my niece accompanied me this time, I was somewhat determined to make sure that wouldn't happen.

So this is the glacier we measured, a source glacier for the Teklanika River in Denali National Park. The snow bank at bottom left hangs off the terminus, despite all the rock debris. It continues all the way to the ridgeline horizon, although the bedrock outcrops in the middle show the glacier's about ready to melt down into two smaller glaciers. Only the widest connection is glacial ice, I think, the rest just looks like snow bands.

We walked up to the cirque you can barely see just below that connection, taking measurements along the way. Half of that cirque and almost all of the rest of the bottom glacier has already lost its snow cover, before July. This bottom glacier is doomed. Still, it's helpful to get ground measurements, and walking a centerline like we did might get the actual researchers a little closer to mass measurements. You have to backpack to get to these glaciers, so we vactioneers can save some time for the researchers.

I was a little disappointed not to measure other glaciers, but a sow grizzly and two cubs were in the way on the previous day. I argued to my family team that we could get around them, but apparently I was unpersuasive (and this was before the unfortunate mauling in Yellowstone).

Great vacation otherwise - I used to work in Alaska, and I love getting back. A boat trip from Valdez by the Stan Stephens tour was slightly marred by a captain who pointed out two glaciers that haven't retreated while failing to mention the retreat that's happening generally. One of them was a tidewater glacier, a type that goes through cycles mostly unrelated to climate.

All else was fine, though, and I just need to get caught up.