Tag Archives: Andrew Moseman

So Not Only Are There Definitely Aliens, But They Are Stealing Our TVs

Chris McKay:

Recent results from the Cassini mission suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are depleted at the surface of Titan. Both results are still preliminary and the hydrogen loss in particular is the result of a computer calculation, and not a direct measurement. However the findings are interesting for astrobiology. Heather Smith and I, in a paper published 5 years ago (McKay and Smith, 2005) suggested that methane-based (rather than water-based) life – ie, organisms called methanogens — on Titan could consume hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane. The key conclusion of that paper (last line of the abstract) was “The results of the recent Huygens probe could indicate the presence of such life by anomalous depletions of acetylene and ethane as well as hydrogen at the surface.”

Now there seems to be evidence for all three of these on Titan. Clark et al. (2010, in press in JGR) are reporting depletions of acetylene at the surface. And it has been long appreciated that there is not as much ethane as expected on the surface of Titan. And now Strobel (2010, in press in Icarus) predicts a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface.

This is a still a long way from “evidence of life”. However, it is extremely interesting.

Andrew Moseman at Discover:

If there were life on the Saturnian moon of Titan, the thinking goes, it would have to inhabit pools of methane or ethane at a cool -300 degrees Fahrenheit, and without the aid of water. While scientists don’t know just what that life would look like, they can predict what effects such tiny microbes would have on Titan’s atmosphere. That’s why researchers from the Cassini mission are excited now: They’ve found signatures that match those expectations. It’s far from proof of life on Titan, but it leaves the door wide open to the possibility.In 2005, NASA’s Chris McKay put forth a possible scenario for life there: Critters could breathe the hydrogen gas that’s abundant on Titan, and consume a hydrocarbon called acetylene for energy. The first of two studies out recently, published in the journal Icarus, found that something—maybe life, but maybe something else—is using up the hydrogen that descends from Titan’s atmosphere to its surface:

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” says Darrell Strobel, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist based at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who authored a paper published in the journal Icarus [Popular Science].

Erring on the side of caution, the scientists suggest that life is but one explanation for this chemical oddity. Perhaps some unknown mineral on Titan acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction of hydrogen and carbon to form methane, and that’s what accounts for the vanishing hydrogen. (Normally, the two wouldn’t combine fast enough under the cold conditions on Titan to account for the anomaly.) That would be pretty cool, though not as much of a jolt as Titanic life.

Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today:

Two papers released last week detailing oddities found on Titan have blown the top off the ‘jumping to conclusions’ meter, and following media reports of NASA finding alien life on Saturn‘s hazy moon, scientists are now trying to put a little reality back into the news. “Everyone: Calm down!” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco on Twitter over the weekend. “It is by NO means certain that microbes are eating hydrogen on Titan. Non-bio explanations are still possible.” Porco also put out a statement on Monday saying such reports were “the unfortunate result of a knee-jerk rush to sensationalize an exciting but rather complex, nuanced and emotionally-charged issue.”

Astrobiologist Chris McKay told Universe Today that life on Titan is “certainly the most exciting, but it’s not the simplest explanation for all the data we’re seeing.”

McKay suggests everyone needs to take the Occam’s Razor approach, where the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.

The two papers suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are being depleted at the surface of Titan. The first paper by Darrell Strobel shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan’s atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. This is a disparity between the hydrogen densities that flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion hydrogen molecules per second, but none showing up at the surface.

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” Strobel said. “I didn’t expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should ‘float’ to the top of the atmosphere and escape.”

The other paper (link not yet available) led by Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist, maps hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface and finds a surprising lack of acetylene. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest a high level of acetylene in Titan’s lakes, as high as 1 percent by volume. But this study, using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) aboard Cassini, found very little acetylene on Titan’s surface.

Of course, one explanation for both discoveries is that something on Titan is consuming the hydrogen and acetylene.

Even though both findings are important, McKay feels the crux of any possible life on Titan hinges on verifying Strobel’s discovery about the lack of hydrogen.

“To me, the whole thing hovers on this determination of whether there is this flux of hydrogen is real,” McKay said via phone. “The acetylene has been missing and the ethane has been missing, but that certainly doesn’t generate a lot of excitement, because how much is supposed to be there depends on how much is being made. There are a lot of uncertainties.”

Phil Plait at Discover:

Titan is a monster, the second biggest moon in the solar system at 5150 km (3200 miles) in diameter. If it weren’t orbiting Saturn, it would probably be considered a planet in its own right: it’s bigger than Mercury and Pluto. It has a thick atmosphere, made up of nitrogen, methane, and other molecules. It’s very cold, but it’s known that lakes, probably of liquid methane, exist on the surface.

Five years ago, McKay and other scientists pointed out that if methane-based life existed on Titan, it might be detectable through a surface depletion of ethane, hydrogen, and acetylene. New observations show that this is the case; there are lower amounts of these substances than the chemistry of Titan would indicate.

As McKay points out, “This is a still a long way from ‘evidence of life’. However, it is extremely interesting.”

Those are the basics. Go read McKay’s article for details. The point he makes is that the results are preliminary, may yet turn out to be wrong, if they’re right may have non-biological explanations, and we should not conclude biology is involved until we get a lot more evidence.

As far as the media goes, headlines get eyeballs and sell advertisements, of course. But in cases where the news is like this, news outlets should be particularly careful how they phrase things. They know how the public will react to certain phrases, and the phrase “evidence of life” is substantially less accurate and more likely to incite chatter than “evidence for possible life” — and the Telegraph’s technically accurate but seriously misleading “evidence ‘that alien life exists on Saturn’s moon’” is just asking for trouble.

The point is, when it comes to media outlets and big news like this, the phrase going through your head should be a variant of an old one, updated for this modern age:

“Don’t trust, and verify”.

John Matson at Scientific American

Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing:

This is the kind of research that easily sets hearts aflutter and space nerds to making high-pitched happy squealing sounds, so let’s knock out one basic thing right off the bat: Nobody has discovered alien life. We have not found E.T. This is only a test of the emergency high-pitched happy squealing system.

That said, it probably wouldn’t be remiss to clap your hands delightedly, like a little girl. As I said, nobody has found alien life, but they did find the sort of evidence that might suggest alien life is down there on the surface of Titan, waiting to be found. It’s a little like walking up to a house and finding the front door open, and, inside, a T.V. stand that’s missing a T.V. It’s reasonable to assume the house might have been burglarized, but there are also other plausible explanations and you don’t have enough evidence to know one way or the other.

Rod Dreher

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Their Name Is Mud

Stephen Power at Wall Street Journal:

Oil giant BP PLC told congressional investigators that a decision to continue work on an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico after a test warned that something was wrong may have been a “fundamental mistake,” according to a memo released by two lawmakers Tuesday.

The document describes a wide array of mistakes in the fateful final hours aboard the Deepwater Horizon—but the main revelation is that BP now says there was a clear warning sign of a “very large abnormality” in the well, but work proceeded anyway.

The rig exploded about two hours later.

The congressional memo outlines what the lawmakers say was a briefing for congressional staff by BP officials early Tuesday. Company representatives provided a preliminary report on their internal investigation of the April 20 disaster, which killed 11 workers and continues to spill thousands of barrels of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico.

The new developments come as President Barack Obama, working to tame a political storm over the spill, is expected to announce Thursday that the government will impose tougher safety requirements and more rigorous inspections on off-shore drilling operations.

According to the memo, BP identified several other mistakes aboard the rig, including possible contamination of the cement meant to seal off the well from volatile natural gas and the apparent failure to monitor the well closely for signs that gas was leaking in, the congressmen wrote in their post-meeting memo. An immense column of natural gas, erupting from the oil well, fueled the fireball that destroyed the rig.

Randy Rieland at Grist:

Here’s something to fill you with confidence on the eve of BP’s risky “Top Kill” gambit: Workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig missed warnings that something was seriously wrong before the rig exploded. BP itself, in a memo to a House committee, reveals that crewmen failed to heed signs of a “very large abnormality” underwater. In fact, they apparently missed one warning sign after another that day.

Third time’s the charm?

Or will it be three strikes you’re out? Later today, BP will try, try, try again to — as the president put it — “plug the damn hole.” This latest attempt is the “top kill,” in which a mix of heavy mud and cement is shot into the well to counteract the upward pressure of leaking oil and gas. If the top kill fails, BP will move on to the “junk shot,” in which a gumbo of rope, tires, and golf balls gets pumped into the leak. If the junk shot doesn’t work, it’s “top hat” time — the smaller of the two containment domes will be lowered over the well to hopefully capture leaking oil and pump it to the surface.

And if that doesn’t work, well, we’re pretty much screwed.

Now that the oil giant relented to pressure from the feds, we can watch it all go down on the BP webcam.

Naked Capitalism:

But the one that got my attention was the exclusive interview of BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg in the Financial Times, in which he remarked:

The US is a big and important market for BP, and BP is also a big and important company for the US, with its contribution to drilling and oil and gas production. So the position goes both ways.

This is not the first time something has gone wrong in this industry, but the industry has moved on.

Yves here. This is simply stunning. First, the BP chairman essentially puts his company on an equal footing as the United States, implying their relation is not merely reciprocal, but equal. BP doesn’t even approach the importance of Microsoft in its heyday, a-not-very-tamed provider of a near monopoly service. And his posture “this is just one problem like others, no biggie” is an offense to common sense and decency.

Many readers have pointed to signs that BP’s order of battle in combatting the leak is seeking to maximize recovery rather than minimize damage, again a sign of backwards priorities. The widely cited gold standard for crisis management, Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 Tylenol tamperings, had the company immediately doing whatever it took, no matter how uneconomical it seemed, to protect the public. BP instead has been engaging in old school conduct: keep a wrap on information as long as possible, minimize outside input, and (presumably) contain costs.

What is worse is the complete lack of any apology or sign of remorse. Even if BP engaged in more or less the same conduct, it would be far more canny for its top officials to make great shows of empathy for all the people who are suffering as a result of the disaster, remind the public that they lost their own men too, and make great speeches about not resting until the leak is plugged, and then add the caveat” “but we have to proceed in a deliberate manner, rushing could make matters worse. We know this is frustrating, and we wish we could hurry the pace.”

The inability to perceive the need to fake remorse shows how wildly out of touch many corporate leaders are with reality. Let’s face it, they are surrounded by sycophants and image-burnishers, they get paid beyond the dreams of mere avarice whether they perform well or abjectly screw up. Unless one happens to be an exception that proves the rule like Jeff Skilling, the worst that might happen to them is a little ritual hazing by Congress for an hour or two and being the subject of the occasional unflattering news story. Real aristocrats, by contrast, at least recognized the importance of noblesse oblige, even if they didn’t always live up to it.

And BP’s outsized institutional ego is making mincemeat of Obama. It is clear that the Administration has NO Plan B if BP continues to get nowhere. And it has tolerated less than comprehensive disaster responses. Why hasn’t BP been asked to do more to contain the oil spill? Given the magnitude of the outflow, even limited success would make a difference. Why hasn’t the Navy been brought in? Trust me, if Al Qaeda had somehow gotten a missile cruise ship with a nuke or two into the Deepwater Horizon location, I’m sure all sorts of military hardware would be dispatched. If the leak turns out to be as bad an many fear, this disaster will be far worse than any readily imaginable terrorist incident, yet our response is sorely wanting.

Tom Diemer at Politics Daily:

BP began Wednesday shooting dense mud into a wellhead 5,000 feet below the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the oil company’s latest attempt to stop a gusher spewing into the Gulf — polluting Louisiana beaches and marshlands.

There were no guarantees the procedure would work, as even the head of BP admitted, and as President Obama also noted during a trip to northern California. The so-called top kill maneuver pumps mud into the well with the aim of damming the spilling oil and then sealing it with cement.

BP spokesman Steven Rinehart said the process would go on for hours, but it may take a couple of days before anyone knows for sure whether it has worked, the Associated Press said

Andrew Moseman at Discover Magazine:

This procedure is no sure bet, because a top kill hasn’t been attempted 5,000 feet down in the sea before. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward estimates the percentage chance of success in the 60s.

The procedure requires an elaborate and precise orchestration among five vessels at the surface, whose duties range from housing pumping equipment to storing a total of 50,000 barrels of drilling mud, and several remote-controlled undersea robots. If all goes as planned, the dense mud will be pumped through a single 6-5/8-inch-diameter drill pipe from one vessel, which will then enter two 3-inch-diameter hoses. Those hoses will deliver the material to the sea floor, where they will intersect with the choke and kill lines of the damaged blowout preventer, which sits atop the well [Christian Science Monitor].

Whether this works may depend on whether the weight of the mud is enough to push the oil back into the well, which isn’t certain. If it fails, the junk shot option—trying to plug up the leak with tires and golf balls and other trash—is still on the table.

Jake Tapper and Huma Khan at ABC:

The White House is seemingly making an increased show of pressuring BP, but President Obama is facing political heat from within his own party for what some say has been a lackluster response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The “political stupidity is unbelievable,” Democratic strategist James Carville said on “Good Morning America” today. “The president doesn’t get down here in the middle of this. … I have no idea of why they didn’t seize this thing. I have no idea of why their attitude was so hands off here.”

On Thursday, Obama will announce new measures the federal government will take to try to prevent any future BP oil spills, administration officials said. And on Friday, the president will visit the Gulf coast, his second trip to the region since the environmental disaster happened last month.

But Carville said the Obama administration’s response to the BP oil spill has been “lackadaisical,” and that rather than place the blame on the previous administration, it should’ve done more to deal with BP and “inept bureaucrats,” which would’ve in turn helped boost Obama’s approval ratings.

Conn Carroll at Heritage:

The federal government’s failure to know how to handle the Deepwater Horizon oil spill does not end with the EPA. It goes all the way to the top. Frustrated by his government’s inability to master the problem, President Barack Obama reportedly cut aides short recently, ordering them to “plug the damn hole.” As if no one had thought of that already. But instead of focusing on the problem at hand, President Obama moved to appoint an unaccountable commission to study the problem substituting process for action at a time when leadership was needed. The commission shifts the responsibility from the persons we elect to oversee these issues to unelected bureaucrats.

The Pew Research Center has released a poll showing a majority of Americans give President Obama and his administration bad marks for its handling of a massive oil spill.  To combat this rising discontent, the Obama administration flew Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen up to Washington to provide some clear answers as to who was in charge of the operation. Just this past Sunday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had said of BP: “If we find that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately.” But when asked about Salazar’s comments Monday, Allen responded: “Well, I would — I would — I would say that that’s more of a metaphor. … You need equipment and expertise that’s not generally within the government — federal government, in terms of competency, capability or capacity. There may be some other way to get it, but I’m a national incident commander. And right now, the relationship with BP is the way I think we should move forward.”

BP, rather than taxpayers, should be held responsible for the costs of the clean-up and liability, and under current federal law that is the case. BP is currently responsible for every penny it costs to clean the mess up. Furthermore, they are responsible for up to $75 million in liability costs (i.e. the secondary costs incurred by businesses and communities) directly, and up to $1 billion additionally comes from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. And the $75 million cap is waived if the responsible party is found to be grossly negligent. Calls to increase these caps retroactively are not needed and are more political expediency then either stopping the leak or mitigating its consequences. Equally frustrating are calls to raise the gas tax, and transfer the costs of this spill onto American consumers.

And that right there, in a nutshell, is the problem not only with the Obama administration’s handling of this crisis, but with the entire regulatory state. The Obama administration is set to announce new and stricter regulations on the oil industry tomorrow. But as the NEPA waivers and MMS failures of this accident show, the existing regulatory framework is already not being enforced. So how will new regulations piled on top of the old ones fix the problem? When government micromanages how private enterprises are run, those entities are not incentivized to prepare for the worst outcomes. Now no one has developed a plan or the expertise to deal with this spill.

John Cole:

I know that no matter what I say, some of you are going to claim I am shilling for Obama while others of you will read the same piece and claim I am unfairly attacking Obama, but I have a serious question- what exactly is the Obama administration supposed to do about the oil spill?

I’ve thought about it, and there are some things that really have pissed me off:

1.) BP keeps missing deadlines they themselves set to cap the spill

2.) BP keeps trying to hide the size of the spill anyway they can, whether it be using dispersants to keep the oil under the water so no one can see it, refusing to allow independent sources access, or just flat out lying.

3.) The government is, as we speak, issuing more permits to drill, even though it is perfectly clear we aren’t prepared for this kind of catastrophe.

Of course, the obvious damage to the gulf and the wildlife has me livid, but these are specific things that have pissed me off about the government and BP’s response. I also almost through something at the wall yesterday when I read Jake Tapper report that the Coast Guard called BP their “friends.”

Having said that, I just don’t know what the administration is supposed to do. What can be done? That, I think, is the real lesson from this- that we can’t really do anything about this sort of disaster, and i think the administration has done a really shitty job of getting that message out.

I hear screams to “take over” the operations from BP. And do what? Is there some secret naval division that handles deep-sea drilling that we have not deployed? Does the government have some elite unit with better equipment than BP? I’m as pissed at them as anyone and want the government to make them pay for every penny of the clean-up, but I have to believe that all the people with experience fighting these things and all the equipment to deal with this sort of thing is already there with BP. And that if we “took over” from BP, it would still be the same people.

In short, I just don’t know what kind of federal response there really could be to this kind of disaster. In Katrina, the reason fro anger was clear- there were people who needed food, shelter, water, and medical treatment, things we have a lot of all over the country, and we just dropped the ball getting it to them. But with this- what are we supposed to do?

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Don’t Drink The Water

Andrew Moseman at Discover:

The oil rig fire in the Gulf of Mexico is finally out, as the Deepwater Horizon sank into the sea yesterday and hope for finding 11 missing workers began to fade. The damage assessment for the oil spill, however, has just begun.

Oil from an undersea pocket that was ruptured by the rig, which was leased by the energy company BP, has begun to spread outward. The spill measures 10 miles (16 kilometers) by 10 miles, about four times the area of Manhattan, and is comprised of a “light sheen with a few patches of thicker crude,” U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Cheri Ben-Iesau said today [BusinessWeek]. Whether or not the 700,000 gallons of diesel on board Deepwater Horizon is part of the spill remains unknown. Transocean, the company that owns the rig, admitted that it failed to “to stem the flow of hydrocarbons” before the rig sank.

Josh Garrett at HeatingOil:

On top of the heavy human cost of the incident is the threat of widespread environmental damage, which is growing by the minute as a massive oil slick spreads toward land. By Monday afternoon, the size of the oil slick was estimated at 1,800 square miles, the New York Times reported. Although no environmental effects have yet been observed, sea flora and fauna could soon be harmed by the presence of the oil in the water. Environmental damage could worsen as the oil slick moves into coastal ecosystems, which the US Coast Guard estimated would not happen for at least 36 hours, according to the Wall Street Journal. BP, the oil company that commissioned the sunken platform, is charged with stopping the leak and cleaning up the spilled oil, both of which could take months.

Cain Burdeau at Daily Caller:

Crews used robot submarines to activate valves in hopes of stopping the leaks, but they may not know until Tuesday if that strategy will work. BP also mobilized two rigs to drill a relief well if needed. Such a well could help redirect the oil, though it could also take weeks to complete, especially at that depth.

BP plans to collect leaking oil on the ocean bottom by lowering a large dome to capture the oil and then pumping it through pipes and hoses into a vessel on the surface, said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP Exploration and Production.

It could take up to a month to get the equipment in place.

“That system has been deployed in shallower water, but it has never been deployed at 5,000 feet of water, so we have to be careful,” he said.

The spill, moving slowly north and spreading east and west, was about 30 miles from the Chandeleur Islands off the Louisiana coast Monday. The Coast Guard said kinks in the pipe were helping stem the flow of oil.

From the air Monday afternoon, the oil spill reached as far as the eye could see. There was little evidence of a major cleanup, with only a handful of vessels near the site of the leak.

The oil sheen was of a shiny light blue color, translucent and blending with the water, but a distinct edge between the oil slick and the sea could be seen stretching for miles.

George Crozier, oceanographer and executive director at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, said he was studying wind and ocean currents driving the oil.

He said Pensacola, Fla., is probably the eastern edge of the threatened area, though no one really knows what the effects will be.

“We’ve never seen anything like this magnitude,” he said. “The problems are going to be on the beaches themselves. That’s where it will be really visible.”

Aaron Viles, director for the New Orleans-based environmental group Gulf Restoration Network, said he flew over the spill Sunday and saw what was likely a sperm whale swimming near the oil sheen.

“There are going to be significant marine impacts,” he said.

Seymour Friendly at Firedoglake:

We have the information that Federal law places all the responsibility for cleanup and emergency response onto the rig’s operator. BP leased the rig from Transoceanic, hence, BP is liable.

Obviously, without massive regulation and investment, British Petroleum is not going to plan and prepare effectively for disasters like this. Such preparation is not profitable to them.

Handling a disaster like this should without doubt be a Federal obligation. BP can absorb the costs, but the Feds should fulfill the mandate for having plans and personnel ready for response, and requirements and safety guidelines that prevent and mitigate disasters as well.

As it stands, of the three initial possible responses:

1) Activate the massive cutoff valve, stopping the flow of oil, via improvised use of deep-sea ROVs,

2) Drill “intervention wells” over a period of months,

3) Place an apparatus over the well that transports the leaked oil to the surface where it can then be removed from the sea indefinitely,

That BP, which owns the decision in lieu of Federal regulations and agency authority, is going to elect for (3).

That means that oil will be going to the surface, and recovered, until the “something can be done”. In other words, this oil leak in the Gulf may go on for a very, very long time.

I’d like to see the Obama administration rectify its statement today that it has “acted swiftly to protect the environment” in light of the fact that it is not clear that there is even a Federal capacity to respond to this situation, and the best of our information is that the leak will continue indefinitely, with the Feds needing to figure out how to remove the oily water produced for months, and the wreck of the oil rig left at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

James Herron at WSJ:

However, contrary to initial Coastguard reports Friday that no oil was leaking from the sunken drilling rig, it became apparent Saturday that around 1,000 barrels a day of crude oil is gushing from ruptures in the pipeline that linked the platform to the sea bed. An oil slick 30 miles long and 20 miles wide is drifting slowly north towards the shore, although weather forecasts indicate it will not hit land for at least 72 hours.

“The oil is ours and we are responsible for the cleanup,” said a BP spokesman. [Read BP’s latest press statement here.]

BP is throwing all the resources it has available at the spill, so the cost to the company may be substantial. It has deployed 32 spill response ships and five aircraft to spray up to 100,000 gallons of chemical dispersant on the slick and skim oil from the surface of the water and deploy floating barriers to trap the oil.

In case attempts to shut down the leaking oil using a remotely operated subsea robot fail, BP is already sending in another rig to drill a second well to inject a specialized heavy fluid into the reservoir and cut the flow of oil from the sea bed–a process that could take months.

“We’ve already spent millions,” and will continue to spend whatever is necessary, said the BP spokesman.

UPDATE: John Cole

Rod Dreher

UPDATE #3: Paul Krugman

Chris Good at The Atlantic

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with a round-up

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner

UPDATE #4: John Hinderaker at Powerline

National Review

Andrew Sullivan

Mark Schmitt and Megan McArdle at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #5: Glenn Thrush and Mike Allen in Politico

Allah Pundit

Steve Benen

UPDATE #6: Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby at The American Scene here and here. And via PEG, Lexington at The Economist

UPDATE #7: Huffington Post

UPDATE #8: Daniel Gross at Slate

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In Bloom

Jeff Bertolucci at PC World:

Now that Bloom Energy has unveiled its innovative fuel cell technology to the world, it appears the much-hyped Silicon Valley startup’s “Energy Server” shows a lot of promise, particularly for Fortune 500 companies that can afford the parking lot-sized power boxes priced up to $800,000 apiece.

But is the Bloom box too good to be true? We may not know for years, of course, although early reports from an impressive lineup of beta testers, including Bank of America, Coca-Cola, eBay, FedEx, Google, and Wal-Mart, are showing sizable reductions in both energy costs and CO2 emissions [PDF]. A power generator that saves money and the environment? This must be Tomorrowland!

Well, Bloom Energy is developing a power box for the home too, a development that could fundamentally change the way home users buy energy, if (again) the Bloom box is the real deal.

Heather Clancy at ZDNet:

This is a huge, paradigm-shifting idea, of course. First off, this addresses the classic problem associated with renewable energy: that it is a transient, unpredictable thing. In order for renewable energy to really have a chance as an alternative to fossil fuels, we need ways to store the electricity produced and ways to feed that power back into the grid if we’re not using all of it.

I liken the thinking behind the Bloom Box to the idea of distributed computing: which enabled thousands of businesses to benefit from information technology, even though they couldn’t afford or support a mainframe computer. If you buy into that idea, why shouldn’t you buy into the idea of distributed energy that is both off the grid and on it, to boot.

If the Bloom Box concept works, and that is a big if obviously, this will be a ground-breaking idea.

Kevin Bullis at MIT Technology Review:

While Bloom is not releasing full details of the technology, it’s a type of solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC). Unlike hydrogen fuel cells proposed for use in vehicles, SOFCs operate at high temperatures (typically well over 600 ºC) and can run on a variety of fuels. They can be more efficient than conventional turbines for generating electricity. But their high cost and reliability problems have kept them from widespread commercial use.

Sridhar says Bloom’s technology has made the fuel cells affordable. What’s more, costs are expected to decrease significantly as production ramps up.

“All indications are that they have taken pretty conventional SOFC technology (zirconia electrolyte, nickel anode) and spent a lot of money to do a very good job of engineering and process development,” says Jeff Bentley, CEO of CellTech Power, which is developing its own fuel cells that can run on fuels such as diesel and even coal. According to Bloom, the technology is based on planar solid oxide fuel cells that Sridhar developed as a professor at the University of Arizona.

Bloom sells 100-kilowatt modules. They’re made of small, flat 25-watt fuel cells that can be stacked together. A complete 100-kilowatt module, with multiple stacks and equipment for converting DC power from the stacks into AC power to be used in buildings, is about the size of a parking space. The company says each module can power a small supermarket.

In addition to Google, eBay, and Walmart, Bloom’s customers include Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Cox Enterprises, FedEx, and Staples. A 400-kilowatt system powers a building at Google that contains an experimental data center. Walmart has installed Bloom modules at two locations, where they generate between 60 to 80 percent of the electricity for the stores.

Andrew Moseman at Discover Magazine:

It’s taken upwards of $400 million in venture capital to advance the Bloom Box, an idea Sridhar got from his days at NASA working on a way to make oxygen on Mars. Sridhar simply turned the concept on its head by pumping oxygen into the box, along with fuel. The oxygen and fuel combine within a new type of fuel cell to create the chemical reaction that makes electricity [Popular Science]. The chemical reaction wouldn’t produce any globe-warming emissions, and the energy for the fuel cells could reportedly come from natural gas, biofuel, or even solar panels. Sridhar wants these individual power sources to replace the electrical grid, and he has some high-profile support, too: Wal-Mart and Google are among the companies currently trying out his box, and Colin Powell is an adviser.

But if the idea of cheap, clean energy leaves you suspicious, and reminds you of similar promises from experiments like the 1989 Fleischmann-Pons cold fusion “breakthrough,” you’re not alone. Greentech Media CEO Michael Kanellos appeared on the CBS segment to question Bloom’s promises, noting the long and difficult history of fuel cell technology and the lack of great detail about Bloom Box: “You know, they wanna almost make instant energy. But they’re also kind of sprinkled with stardust. You know, Al Gore talks about them. You see the CEO palling around with Tom Friedman at Davos. So there’s a certain whiff of celebrity” [CBS News]. As of this writing, Greentech Media’s own post about the Bloom Box is illustrated with a fanciful unicorn prancing in front of a rainbow.

Sridhar plans to unveil the machine on Wednesday, and Bloom Box’s own cryptic Web site features little besides a clock counting down to that time. Though the corporate units currently in demo cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sridhar says he can eventually bring the cost down to about $2,000, and wants one in every home in the country. We’ll see.

Jennifer L. Schenker at BusinessWeek:

Some industry analysts remain skeptical, pointing to a long list of fuel cell startups that have never managed to turn a profit. “I am pretty sure that when we learn more about Bloom Energy we will see that it works technically, but the costs are unapproachably high for the next 10 years,” says Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an energy research consultancy. “We already have a lot of those solutions.”

Consider the case of two companies that make the same type of fuel cells as Bloom Energy. Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd, an Australian solid-oxide fuel cell company created in 1992, is still not profitable, says Jacob Grose, a senior analyst specializing in alternative power and energy storage in the New York office of Lux Research. Neither is Ceres Power Holdings,a publicly-traded British fuel cell company founded in 2001. It reported losses of £8 million ($12.24 million) last year on revenues of £1 million ($1.53 million).

Fuel Cell Energy, an established Danbury (Conn.) company that uses a different flavor of fuel cell, also has struggled. The company’s power plants have generated more than 340 million kilowatts of electricity for big business customers like Pepperidge Farm (a unit of Campbell Soup) using a variety of fuels, including wastewater gas, biogas from beer and food processing, and natural gas and other hydrocarbon fuels. Yet the company reported just $80 million in revenues in 2009, with losses of $72.5 million.

The key to Bloom Energy’s success will thus be whether it can break this pattern and sell its energy servers profitably. Bloom Energy says it will prevail where others have failed because its technology is distinct in key ways. The company claims to use lower-cost materials, allowing its boxes to be more easily mass produced and affording them a wider potential market. Bloom also says its solution is more efficient at converting fuel to electricity; is more easily deployed and maintained than alternatives; and has the ability to work with a wide range of renewable or traditional energy sources.

Bloom executives concede that fuel cells have so far under-delivered on their promise. That’s why the eight-year-old company has been so secretive until this point: It wanted to demonstrate solid experience with real customers to prove it’s really different. Bloom has now revealed that it made its first commercial installation in July 2008, and that since then, its boxes have collectively produced more than 11 million kilowatt hours of electricity and saved 14 million pounds of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of powering 1,000 American homes for a year and planting one million trees.

The company’s ambitions go beyond fueling corporations to powering individual homes. Bloom boxes also could reduce dependence on gasoline-powered vehicles by generating electricity for hybrid or electric cars. And when the cells are run in reverse, they output hydrogen, which could power hydrogen vehicles, if they ever take off. Sridhar is especially excited about the potential for Bloom boxes in emerging economies, where he says they could bring power and light to remote villages now cut off from the power grid—potentially boosting education, health care, and access to clean water and refrigeration.

That said, he acknowledges it will take at least three to five years before Bloom boxes reach “grid parity” for home use, or price competitiveness with traditional residential-scale electric supplies. And no timetable has been announced yet for an international rollout of the technology.

For now, the focus is on big business customers in the U.S., who use Bloom’s energy servers as a complement to traditional power supplies. The company says that in commercial applications, it can already generate power more cheaply than via traditional fossil fuels—for about 9 to 10 cents a kilowatt hour, vs. typical rates of 13 to 14 cents for power from the grid. Bloom’s corporate boxes cost about $700,000 to $800,000 and have a three- to five-year payback period, the company estimates. “We are twice as efficient as the U.S. national grid, which means we can produce the same amount of electricity for half the fuel and half the carbon footprint,” Sridhar says.

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See Spot Run, See Spot Fetch, See Spot On Jupiter, That Dog Must Be Dead

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A couple weeks ago, Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley found what’s pictured above: a new spot on Jupiter

His report:

When I came back to the scope at about 12:40am I noticed a dark spot rotating into view in Jupiters south polar region started to get curious. When first seen close to the limb (and in poor conditions) it was only a vaguely dark spot, I thouht likely to be just a normal dark polar storm. However as it rotated further into view, and the conditions improved I suddenly realised that it wasn’t just dark, it was black in all channels, meaning it was truly a black spot.

My next thought was that it must be either a dark moon (like Callisto) or a moon shadow, but it was in the wrong place and the wrong size. Also I’d noticed it was moving too slow to be a moon or shadow. As far as I could see it was rotating in sync with a nearby white oval storm that I was very familiar with – this could only mean that the back feature was at the cloud level and not a projected shadow from a moon. I started to get excited.

It took another 15 minutes to really believe that I was seeing something new – I’d imaged that exact region only 2 days earlier and checking back to that image showed no sign of any anomalous black spot.

Now I was caught between a rock and a hard place – I wanted to keep imaging but also I was aware of the importance of alerting others to this possible new event. Could it actually be an impact mark on Jupiter? I had no real idea, and the odds on that happening were so small as to be laughable, but I was really struggling to see any other possibility given the location of the mark. If it really was an impact mark then I had to start telling people, and quickly. In the end I imaged for another 30 minutes only because the conditions were slowly improving and each capture was giving a slightly better image than the last.

Eventually I stopped imaging and went up to the house to start emailing people, with this image above processed as quick and dirty as possible just to have something to show.

More images will come along from me and many other people in the next few days.

Scientific American:

He continued to photograph the planet, then returned to his house to e-mail others about what he finally concluded had to be a scar from a recent impact. Leigh Fletcher, a postdoctoral astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., happened to be part of a team with observing time on the NASA Infrared Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii when he and his colleagues got word of Wesley’s unusual sighting. What is more, Fletcher’s group was already going to train the three-meter telescope on Jupiter to observe its storms, working remotely from Pasadena.

“You can imagine the scene: We’re all extremely excited, crammed around the computer screen to see those first images from the telescope facility,” Fletcher says. “And there it was: an extremely bright feature on the southern hemisphere of Jupiter.” It looked just like a medium-size impact from Shoemaker-Levy 9, Fletcher says, confirming Wesley’s assessment.

Paul Kalas, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, also had observing time booked on Mauna Kea, at the 10-meter Keck 2 telescope, when he and his colleagues read about Wesley’s discovery on the blog of Kalas’s Berkeley colleague Franck Marchis. Kalas and his team were using Keck to look for the exoplanet Fomalhaut b, some 25 light-years away. (Fomalhaut b was one of the first extrasolar planets whose orbit was confirmed with photographic evidence in November.)

Kalas and his colleagues took about 90 minutes away from their Fomalhaut observations to check on Wesley’s purported find. What they saw was an unmistakable spot glowing brightly in the infrared where something had punched through Jupiter’s outer layers. “We agreed with the amateur astronomer that this was an impact event,” Kalas says.

Lonnie Morgan at Wired with an interview with Wesley:

GD: How does it feel to be the first to see the Jupiter event? What were your first “out loud” words?

It still feels unbelievable. In hindsight the part of this that I feel happiest about was the fast reporting to alert others. The observing part came about naturally, I was just in the right place at the right time. But, the reporting required action on my part and a bit of a gamble that I was doing the right thing. At the time I wasn’t sure if I was just going to end up looking stupid but I was willing to take the chance.

First words out loud? Almost certainly not printable! I remember looking at this dark spot in the live feed from the camera and slowly coming around from puzzlement to disbelief and then to tremendous excitement, all in the space of about 15 minutes.

Gearlog

Universe Today:

“It’s significant that in each of the last 3 years amateurs have made the initial discoveries of new features in the Jovian atmosphere, the colour change of the previously white Oval BA to red in 2007 by Chris Go of the Philippines, the formation of another (smaller) red spot last year by myself, and then this event in 2009. In all cases the amateur work was followed up with imagery from Hubble and other major telescopes.”

This new impact occurred exactly 15 years after the first impacts by the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and as the celebrations of the Apollo 11 moon landings are taking place.

Glenn Orton, a scientist at JPL and his team of astronomers kicked into gear early in Monday morning and haven’t stopped tracking the planet. They are downloading data now and are working to get additional observing time on this and other telescopes.

“We were extremely lucky to be seeing Jupiter at exactly the right time, the right hour, the right side of Jupiter to witness the event. We couldn’t have planned it better,” he said.

Andrew Moseman in Popular Mechanics:

So far, researchers have narrowed down the direction and size of the impactor, but one big question remains: Just what kind of object was it? To answer this question, the researchers again will turn to Shoemaker-Levy 9, says Glenn Orton, a senior research scientist at JPL. The 1994 impacts left traces of hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and other chemicals in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Now Orton is using spectroscopic analysis, which determines the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere by the light it gives off, to see if the 2009 impactor left a similar signature, which would indicate it was probably a comet as well. Orton says the best explanation is a comet or other icy body–nearly all the objects roaming that area of the solar system are icy–and finding oxygen traces would just about cinch the case. But making these observations through our own oxygen-rich atmosphere is a difficult task, he says, so the answer may take some time.

While questions remain, astronomers are carrying on their sleepless race to record all the information they can from Jupiter’s new scar before it’s too late. “We have no idea how long it will last,” de Pater says. Orton says he’s run himself and his grad students ragged as he guided observations in Chile by phone from his California office until 1 am and then started again at 7 am, when Jupiter’s scar became visible to the telescopes in Hawaii. “I’m exhausted,” he says. Others are joining the party too. Late last week, the Hubble Space Telescope’s brand-new camera, which space shuttle astronauts installed in May, snapped the sharpest visible-light photo yet taken of the impact site. It’ll take weeks and months to unravel all the data, Gurwell says, but for now astronomers’ priority is to gather all the evidence they possibly can. “We’ll shoot first and ask questions later,” he says.

Sky and Telescope Magazine:

And on the night of August 3-4, Jupiter will cover a 6th-magnitude star — a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for most locations on Earth. The event occurs roughly from 22:53 Universal Time on August 3rd to 1:00 UT August 4th, varying slightly depending on your location. It happens at prime time for stargazers in Europe and Africa, and is also readily visible in the Middle East and Brazil.

[…] But by amazing good luck, 45 Cap will be masquerading as a fifth moon during a particularly eventful period for Jupiter’s Galilean moons. So weather permitting, every telescope owner on Earth will have a chance to see many fascinating events during the days before and after the occultation.

All of these events should be visible through small telescopes if the atmosphere is very steady, but extra aperture and high magnification will improve the views greatly. Try our Javascript utility or our PDF table for details of the moons’ interactions with Jupiter. And download a PDF article from the July 2009 issue of Sky & Telescope to see the details of the “mutual events” between the moons.

Aug. 1-2, 10:19 p.m. to 1:48 a.m. PDT, 1:19 to 4:48 a.m. EDT: The first sequence is visible across the Americas. It starts with just three moons visible (not counting 45 Cap), because Ganymede is behind Jupiter. During this period Europa and its shadow pass over Jupiter, Ganymede reappears, and Io disappers.

Aug. 2-3, 9:49 p.m. to 12:25 a.m. PDT, 12:49 to 3:25 a.m. EDT: Again visible across the Americas, a normal transit of Io and its shadow across Jupiter — fairly common but spectacular nonetheless.

Aug. 2, 15:55 to 16:32 UT: Best in eastern Asia and Australia. Io casts its shadow on Europa from 15:55 to 16:02 UT, dimming it 50%. Then Io passes in front of Europa from 16:26 to 16:36 UT, blocking 74% of its surface. Meanwhile, 45 Cap is just 30″ to their south.

Aug. 3-4, 22:53 to 4:39 UT, Jupiter rise to 12:39 a.m. EDT: This is the big event. The occultation of 45 Cap is best observed from Europe and Africa, but as you can see in the diagram above, Europa disappears into Jupiter’s shadow while the star is hidden, and Io disappears shortly after the star reappears. By 4:39 UT (12:39 a.m. EDT or 9:39 PDT), all three have reappeared from behind Jupiter, but they’re still spectacularly close to Jupiter and each other.

Aug. 4, 21:47 to 22:57 UT: In most of Europe and Africa, and much of Asia, Ganymede casts its shadow on Europa, diminishing its light 94%, from 21:47 to 21:59 UT. Then Ganymede clips the edge of Europa from 22:48 to 22:57 UT.

Aug. 4-5, 23:18 to 1:51 UT: In Europe and Africa, a normal transit of Io and its shadow.

Aug. 5, 14:38 to 23:05 UT: A very long sequence of events, best viewed in the Middle East and eastern Africa, but with parts visible across Eurasia and Oceania. A transit of Ganymede and its shadow overlapping a transit of Europa and its shadow, with Io disappearing and reappearing toward the end of the sequence.

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