Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Ancient Vampire Squid

 "The Ancient Vampire Squid" is a great title for a Sy-Fy Channel movie, or maybe a band, but here it refers to an interesting animal. The vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), is a little cephalopod that lives in depths of temperate seas, where it basically does nothing except pick up little bits of organic detritus (a.k.a. "marine snow"). It's not an octopus or a squid - it's weird enough to be in its own family (I guess no one invites it to picnics). It does have eight arms with spines and suckers and two tentacles, which have glowing, sticky tips. It can squirt bioluminescent ink. Despite its harmlessness, its "cape" of skin connecting the tentacles and its deep red color got it the coolest scientific name of all time, meaning "vampire squid from hell." Richard Ellis wrote a little e-book about it.

Where did such an oddity come from, in the evolutionary sense? Not surprisingly, fossils of small invertebrates can be rare and fragmentary. However, a new paper examining three good fossils from Jurassic-period France of Vampyronassa rhodanica finds the oldest known ancestor was an active predator, not a passive lurker.  More robust suckers on the arms were one clue: marine snow doesn't struggle. 

Maybe it's not finding a new dinosaur. But it's still fascinating.

Hat tip to Shannon Bohle for pointing me to this item.

Matt Bille

Monday, June 20, 2022

Responsive Space update

 Tactical space, tactical launch, responsive space, call it what you will, there's been a three-decade debate over how best to get American military payloads into space and put them to work quickly - or whether such a capability even matters.

The Air Force, which had a responsive space capability of its own in the early 60s (the Blue Scout program) never knew what to do with this topic.  

The service's main medium/heavy launch vehicle series of this century, the EELVs, were supposed to have a "rapid" capability but took over a year from start to finish of a "launch campaign." Congress pushed the Operationally Responsive Space program in the early 2000s, and it launched several satellites, but it was dismissed at the upper levels (granted, small satellites were not as capable as they are today) as not very important, and was eventually dismantled. 

Congress has taken a new interest, boosted by the achievements of the Space Development Agency and the increasing capability of very small microsatellites, in having the Space Force fly more demonstration missions and eventually create a budget line item. Check out the latest news

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Remember Sally Ride

 On this date in 1983, physicist turned astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in orbit. Salute her legacy.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Original World of Jurassic Park

As Jurassic World: Dominion stomps into view, with great visuals (albeit with some inaccurate dinosaurs) and the stupidest plot in the entire series, I take a look back at the two books by Michael Crichton that re-ignited the world's fascination with dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park

Crichton, Michael (1990: Alfred A.Knopf: 448pp.)

The first thing to note about this book is that it's not the movie.  The premise carries over, but Crichton's human characters are quite different. John Hammond is a profit-hungry tycoon who uses any means available (and a miniature elephant that's an interesting side story) to attract investors and open his park.  Ian Malcom is a brilliant but dour annoyance without much personality. 
The dinosaur-cloning is explained pretty well. Stephen J. Gould wrote of this book that, while dino-cloning couldn't really be done, Crichton offered “the most clever and realistic solution” in fiction. Chaos theory is important from the beginning. Malcom warns piling one sophisticated security system and protocol on another, combined with the uncertainties introduced by the dinosaurs, would lead to catastrophic failure. He’s right, although nobody likes a sourpuss prophet, and I thought “good riddance” when he was apparently eaten by a T. rex
Crichton’s writing and characterization are not spectacular, but his style works well, building tension and offering some great scares, and the jargon is kept at a reasonable level. The dinosaurs are a varied and entertaining lot, true to the science of the time, and this is where the world learned the word Velociraptor
The sequel, The Lost World (1995: Alfred A. Knopf, 393pp.) written after the first movie and setting up the second one, keeps most of the characters and brings Ian back from the seemingly-dead. (John Hammond, though, stays dead.) Ian is closer to Jeff Goldblum in this one. Dr. Richard Levine, a guy who wonders about real "lost worlds" where prehistoric creatures might have survived, catches on to the hushed-up events of the first book. It makes sense when he finds a new island of dinosaurs: the site in the first book was too clean, too showy, to be the facility where so many failures and mistakes must have happened as Hammond's company learned to clone dinosaurs.  
And so we move, albeit slowly, to Site B. There we learn more about how the dinosaur-reviving was done and, of course, witness a lot more death. There's a little too much information stuffed in for most readers, although yours truly devoured it.  The new characters, Levine (whose disappearance on Site B sparks the plot) and action-scientist Sarah Harding, don't make a lasting impression. (It is worth noting that Harding gets a role played in 99% of prior science fiction by a man.)  The smart-bratty stowaway children are annoying. I almost thought it unfortunate that Crichton, like Spielberg, never crosses the line and feeds kids to dinosaurs.  
The T. rex is still the boss species, and Velociraptors are zooming around. We do, though, we get interesting new species including what a character thinks of, not surprisingly, as "A goddamn Stegosaurus" and a predator with previously unknown chameleon-like abilities. Modern paleontologists don't believe that's a thing, any more than they think T. rex could only see prey if it moved, but it's not so absurd that it takes us out of the story. The action sequences are very good, and there are plenty of thrills and scares.  Publisher's Weekly gave it a so-so review, then mentioned the first printing was two million copies, and it's hard to argue with success.
And so the Jurassic Park franchise catapulted dinosaurs back into popular culture, apparently to stay. 

Matt Bille

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

The Amazing X-15 Rocketplane Turns 63

The hype today about hypersonic flight and suborbital human flights to the lower edges of space seems to go on without reference to an important data point: we did these things before, and we did them with slide rules and 60-year-old technology.  The X-15 rocketplane was the the highest-performance aircraft ever built. In many ways, it still is. It first touched the sky in an unpowered test flight from its B-52 carrier aircraft on this date in 1959.


The X-15s (three built, one destroyed) were sponsored by the Air Force and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, which  became NASA in October 1959) and built by North American Aviation. 

In 199 flights, X-15s pushed the speed record for piloted aircraft to Mach 6.7 and the altitude record, rather symmetrically, to 67 miles (not on the same flight). A 200th flight at the end of the program was scheduled but postponed and eventually canceled. Proposals to modify the X-15 to carry a satellite-bearing rocket, or even to go into space itself, were not pursued.  (I have serious doubts about whether the orbital version could have survived, although test pilots would of course have lined up to try it.)  Five U.S. Air Force pilots broke 50 miles, the altitude recognized  the USAF as the boundary of space, and were awarded astronaut wings. The 12 pilots also included men from the Navy and NASA and a legendary civilian test pilot, Scott Crossfield, who worked for North American. 

It wasn't an easy program to carry out. It pushed almost every area of technology, and the engine alone ended up costing more than the initial projection for the entire effort.  It certainly wasn't easy to fly: the initial configuration included three joysticks for the two-handed pilot. (I know women who claim male fighter pilots have at least four hands, but that's neither here nor there.)

The X-15 was a unique beast. It was beautiful in a brutal kind of way, with short thick wings and a massive wedge of a vertical stabilizer. It made countless contributions to air and space technology. Historian Roger Bilstein wrote, 

"The X-15’s survival encouraged extensive use of comparatively exotic alloys, such as titanium and Inconel-X, which led to machining and production techniques that became standard  in the aerospace industry. . . . prompted development of the first practical full-pressure suit for pilot protection in space. The X-15 was the first to use reaction controls for attitude control in space; re-entry techniques and related technology also contributed  to the space program." (from the book Testing Aircraft, Exploring Space: An Illustrated History of NACA and NASA,[2003]. 

As I said, the program gets overlooked today.  When I worked on maneuverable hypersonic reentry craft for Air Force Space Command some years ago, the officer in charge of that branch of the Requirements section didn't even know we'd flown anything sizable in that regime before. But we did. Consider Neil Armstrong, one of whose X-15 flights appears in the movie First Man. (The bit where he actually sees the metal underneath his rudder pedals glow is dramatic license, though.)  

You can still see the X-15 for yourself. The highest-performance airframe, modified to a configuration designated the X-15A-2, is in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton Ohio. My first impression on seeing it there was that it looked like it was going supersonic even when it was standing still.  The other surviving plane is in the Smithsonian, although it's off exhibit during renovations. 

Truly an American aerospace first.