Thursday, September 26, 2019

"Sea of Shadows" coming to TV

The urgent, compelling documentary Sea of Shadows, on the last-ditch fight to save the vaquita porpoise, moves from theaters to National Geographic TV on November 9. Don't miss it.  

Appalling Disrespect for Written History - Redstone Library Closing -UPDATE!

Libraries of all kinds, all over the country, are cutting back their physical collections because of the absurd idea everything important is online. It's appalling, though, to see a library whose parent organization knows the physical collection is irreplaceable, indispensable, and one of a kind to go that way.
The research library at Redstone Arsenal, where 60 years of space history and knowledge are archived, is vanishing, to be replaced with online access to a fraction of the materials.
I have no words, except for short one-syllable types I try to avoid using in this blog.  I hope there is some chance US Space Command, the Air Force Academy, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, or SOMEONE will step in and preserve this.

UPDATE! I talked to the hsitory office at Air Froce Space Command, which has offered to take the entire collection.  Dr.Sturdevant there contacted his Army counterpart, who assured huim the Army had decided not to turn the physical records over to disposal: they will be maintained for up to a year until the Army decides whether to open a branch library, send it all to AFSPC (which currently has the History responsibility for the new US Space Command) , or find some other solution.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Shooting a rocket from Mars

Returning a sample of Martian soil has been seriously discussed at least since the Viking landers in the 70s.  But there's no really simple way to solve it.  Landing a rocket on Mars big enough to take a sample directly back to Earth means shipping a lot of mass to Mars, which by one estmate costs a good $1M per kilogram. Doing it any other way means a rendezvous in Martian orbit.  That's where NASA is headed now: the Mars 2020 rover will collect and study samples and take them to a surface point where another spacecraft (not yet built) with a rocket will land, and then the rocket lofts the samples or dock with an orbiter and send them to Earth.  (It's almost enough to make you think it's easier to just send astronauts, although that option still seems far off at out current rate of progress.)   There are a host of challenges here, and this article is a good introduction. (image NASA)
NASA rocket

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Happy 30th birthday to Space News

"On Sept. 18, 1989, SpaceNews published the first of four monthly preview issues to test the waters for a trade publication focused exclusively on space..."

It turned out there was definitely room for a weekly newspaper (now a monthly magazine in a hard copy, although daily online) to cover the space community - military, civil, commercial, technology, government, and all the rest.  It's done a  terrific job of ceverage, remained balanced, and even quoted me and printed a couple of op-eds from me (how classy can you get)?  They've kept it pretty nonpartisan in anindustry which has ferocious partisans (put the ULA fans and the SpaceX fans in a paintball game, and its possible no one will come out alive) and open to all points of view.

I've had sucsriptions whenever I could afford them and kept up online, via work, etc. whenever I couldn't.  They do special issues for the Space Symposium and the Conference on Small Satellites, other special events, and did a good job on the Apollo 11 anniversary, although they normally leave history to other publications, like QUEST (which also publishes me now and then).  

Happy birthday, and keep doing a great job!

Japan's wolf: Almost forgotten, but not gone?

A howl recorded in Japan has renewed interest in the Japanese wolf, believed exticnt as early as 1905.  Some researchers have never lost hope.  There is no recording of its howl, although it was universally reported to be amazingly loud for an animal that was less that 40 cm at the shoulder: indeed,the animal was known as "the Howling God." (One might say the country famous for the subcompact car also produced the subcompact wolf.)
Now a howl identified byexperts as slightly higher-pitched than that of a timber wolf and matching  no other animal known in Japan has enthusiasts excited again.  A television documentary featuring that sound and modern sightings, which include some photographs, is in work in Japan.  
Are there nights when, on Japan's loneliest mountaintops, the Howling God still speaks? 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Vaquita still hanging on

The vaquita porpoise is easily the most endangered marine mammal on Earth. The smallest of the porpoises, the chunky little cetacean with black rings around its eyes was nicknamed "little cow" by local fishermen in Gulf of California a long time ago.  Now a lot of fishermen (though certainly not all) nickname it something a lot harsher and wish it would vanish so they could poach totoaba fish, whose bladders are worth tens of thousands of dollars each. (To be fair, even fishermen who want to catch something else are under the gun, literally, from drug smugglers - the bladders are worth as much as the drugs.)
Extinction is almost here. The estimates of numbers have been down as low as 12, which isn't a viable population in the wild even under perfect conditions. I wouldn't have been surprised at all if it hit 0 this year.
And yet, the species has been hanging on, just barely. Every sighting is cherished and every calf is cause for a champagne celebration among conservationists, so an expedition sighting 6 animals was very good news.  The latest estimate of 30 offers, if not celebration, at least hope.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Fiction Review: Fathomless

by Greig Beck, 2016 edition (paperback)

The Megalodon shark pretty much deserves its own shelf in the fiction aisle at Barnes Noble.  From its mention in Jaws to a raft of novels to its appearance in Meg and a couple of terrible faked “documentaries,” the big lug has been popular for a long time.

That make it harder to write original Meg novels, although authors like Briar Lee Mitchell (Big Ass Shark) have pulled it off to stand out from the dreck of hundreds of self-published novels by people who have never seen a shark (or an editor).  Now Grieg Beck, master of the lost-world novel, has turned his attention to the supershark, hanging out in a subterranean Alaskan sea. While most authors zoom past the “how did it survive” question with impossible or rushed-through scenarios, Beck expands that part to give our heroes not one great adventure, but two. The obligatory showdown on the open sea is here, but man, did these characters go through a lot to get there!
I can nitpick the science (e.g., Meg was not closely related to the modern Great White, and “sharks don’t get cancer” is an ad slogan, and a false one.). The adventurers need many happy coincides to survive, but this is a thriller, and everyone needs a few of those moments.  Questionably accurate Meg behavior can be glossed over because the animals had had millions of years to evolve, although I hated the “this one fish will destroy all commerce in the Pacific Ocean” thought when it came up in Steve Alten’s Meg, and I’m not a fan of seeing it again here.  Countering that, any book that slips Dunkleosteus in for a cameo is fine by me.
Beck’s characters are interesting, three dimensional, and generally act in character. Kudos to Beck for a cast you can believe in, plus a stunt early on making you miss-guess who a particular villain is (I won’t spoil it).   
Do I believe this could happen? No. The undersea ecosystem has too many big animals and no source of outside energy (like sunlight or really massive thermal vent colonies) to make it keep going.   But is it entertaining? Hell, yes. This is a great book for someone who wants to spend a few evenings reading of brave American scientists, mysterious Russians, a deadly monstrosity, some exotic marine life, a cool high-tech minsub, and a geology lesson to boot.