Geek Update

There have been some interesting developments in the land of Geekdom. First off, a private company, SpaceX (nee: Space Exploration Technologies), launched an Apollo-like man-rated capsule into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and brought it back safely. The Dragon capsule is designed to ferry cargo and/or people to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and was launched from the Falcon 9 Space Lift Vehicle (SLV), both capsule and SLV designed and built by SpaceX. The capsule orbited the Earth twice before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific ~500mi west of Southern California. The craft deployed parachutes to slow its descent, making the first American water landing since that last Apollo mission in 1975.

The entire undertaking took about 4 hours. Everything went “nominal”, engineer-speak for “as designed”. No surprises. This has import for our stalled manned space program, as NASA has been allowed to atrophy in its area of expertise. SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, 39, who made a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal in 2002, said he started SpaceX with the goal of developing and launching rockets at a fraction of the cost of the current generation of spacecraft. He’s poured ~$100 million of his own money into the venture. Russia sends civilians to the ISS for a payment of $20 million, and has offered to send American astronauts up for $50 Million each. Musk pegs the cost of the average space shuttle flight at ~$1 billion. Flights from SpaceX will run ~$100 million, he said.

Now we find that the Falcon wasn’t carrying just the Dragon capsule. Two Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Naval Center for Space Technology-designed and -built nano-satellites were also carried aboard the Falcon, and deployed “including arrays and antennas … shortly after launch,” said Dr Stephen Arnold, NRL Spacecraft Engineering department electronics engineer. Known as the CubeSat Experiment (QbX), the two 3U (30x10x10cm) CubeSat buses were built by Pumpkin Incorporated [San Francisco], and neither Pumpkin nor the Navy are saying much more about them.

“Currently, the spacecraft are healthy, and experimentation and checkout are continuing,” said Dr Arnold. Spacecraft attitude is controlled by, and operates in, a novel “Space Dart” mode. Due to the atmospheric drag in LEO (300km) they are able to stabilize pointing to within five degrees throughout the orbit. The methodology has been verified on both vehicles and is providing a stable platform for continued experimentation. “It is expected that the QbX vehicles will remain in orbit for about 30 days,” said Arnold. “After which, they will succumb to the effects of atmospheric drag and be destroyed during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.”

On April 22, an Atlas 5 heavy lift vehicle roared into orbit with the X-37B atop. Built by Boeing’s Phantom Works, the 11,000-pound craft is 9½ feet tall and just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It has a cargo bay and two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer, resembling a small space shuttle. The highly secret Air Force spacecraft was “placed into orbit for testing,” said Air Force spokesman Jeremy Eggers. Nothing else has been said about it … until December 3, when the Air Force quietly announced that the X-37 had landed itself on a runway at Vandenburg AFB at 0115 Pacific Standard Time.

“We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission,” program manager Lieutenant Colonel Troy Giese said in a statement. “Today’s landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between USAF’s 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office,” Giese said. Eggers said the craft is expected to return to space next year.

Extending our field of view, a new star census, based on analysis of the light signature of galaxies using instruments at the Keck Observatory [HI], pushes the total number of stars in the universe to 30 times 100-billion-squared. That’s 300 sextillion stars, or about three times the current estimate. This “adjustment” is due to vastly increased amounts of sodium and iron showing up in the spectra of distant galaxies, meaning many more red dwarfs (which are too dim to show up themselves at these distances), per galaxy than previously thought. We had assumed the distribution of red dwarfs in galaxies to approximate that of known examples in our own. That assumption may not be valid.

We know that star formation goes through phases – the first stars were formed of the elemental hydrogen that constituted the early particulate universe, heavy elements[1] only appearing upon these large, primary stars going nova. It may be that some secondary or tertiary phase of star development yielded a large number of stars that ended up as long-lived red dwarfs.

These small, dense stars still have a “Goldilocks” zone, possible orbits not too close and not too far away, within which planets could support liquid water, and therefore some form of life. It is likely, however, that a rocky planet – necessary to exhibit the rich chemistry required for the development of complex compounds – occupying these obits would be in a gravitational lock with its star, like our Moon, with the same hemisphere always facing it and the other always turned away. Even though a red dwarf emits only 1% of the light our Sun does, the starward face of such a planet would roast in temperatures up to 64°C, whereas the dark side sees relentless North Pole-like winters. Life would likely arise in the eternal twilight of the demarcation zone, and because of the dim radiance of the host star, CO2-breathers would probably photosynthesize as much starlight as “sun”-light, making them appear black instead of green, according to modeling by Nancy Kiang of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies [NYC] and collaborators at the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory[2]. Even more interesting, UCal-Santa Cruz astronomer Steven Vogt postulates that the “perpetual sunset” of the demarcation zone means that the specific wavelengths of light reaching each longitude could even prompt a rainbowlike gradient of plant colors with pigments adapted to absorb the light streaming across the surface. The upshot of a vastly larger number of red dwarfs than previously thought is a vastly larger number of stars that could support life-bearing planets.

Interesting, if geeky, stuff.


[1] To astrophysicists, “heavy” elements are those atoms larger than hydrogen and helium.

[2] Bryn Nelson, Black Plants and Twilight Zones: New Evidence Prompts Rethinking of Extraterrestrial Life, in Scientific American, December 2010.

Understanding Turkey

In a Realist sense, Turkey is key for the reason she has always been key – Turkey is the southern Eurasian interface, buffering European Russia from the Middle East and Persia from the Mediterranean. As a NATO member, Turkey is ideally placed to host early warning radars for Europe-bound missiles rising out of Iran. It is also ideally suited to host (or block) oil and gas pipelines out of Russia/Kazakhstan (or Iraq/Saudi Arabia) into southern Europe. This places Turkey in a powerbroker’s seat between East and West – a role she has played for centuries.

Turkey wants into the European Union, but Europe is no more sanguine about including an Islamic state than it was in the 19th century. In a Realist sense, we should cultivate Turkey for the same reasons we should cultivate Ukraine and Belarus – they are too far away to be strategically held, but it is strategically important to keep them out of Russian control. This will be easier with Turkey than with Ukraine and Belarus because Turkey wants to be part of the West, where Ukraine is attracted to Europe but speaks Russian, and Belarus has never not been Russian.

Turkey has always been Western in its acceptance of multiethnicity and differing religions among its people. That isn’t about to change now. Yes, the current party in charge is increasingly sensitive to modern Turkey’s Ottoman (and therefore Islamic) roots, but no, they aren’t becoming an Islamist state. Turks still want to be Europeans – not Arabs, not Persians and not Orientals. Turkey is in search of its own identity within the larger context of “the West”.

There are three major themes playing out in this region right now – the re-emergence of Germany as the engine of Europe, the re-emergence of Russia as a European challenge, and rise of Turkey in Europe’s hinterland.

Turkey will emerge as one of the great regional powers of the next generation. It is clear that this process is already under way when you look at their rapid economic growth even in the face of the global financial crisis, and when you look at their growing regional influence. As you’d expect, this process is exacerbating internal political tensions as well as straining old alliances and opening the door to new ones. It is creating anxiety inside and outside of Turkey about what they are becoming and whether it is a good thing or not. Whether it is a good thing can be debated, I suppose, but the debate doesn’t much matter. The transformation from an underdeveloped country emerging from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire to a major power is happening before our eyes.

This is why we need to handle Turkey as though we understand history. We threw Poland under the bus for an hallucinatory “reset” with Putin’s Russia, but Poland, caught between Germany and Russia, has always been played, never the player. Turkey is a player.

Putin said that if the NATO missile defense system excludes Russia and includes installations along Russia’s borders, Moscow will see that as a threat and be forced to respond with an expansion and updating of its own weapons systems. This is, of course, silly – they can’t afford to fuel their strategic air force as it is. The real issues here are two: launch-detect radars function perfectly as battle management radars, and battle management radars on Russia’s borders could easily be re-aimed to monitor Russian airspace; and, Putin desperately wants access to our BMD technology, which “sharing” assets would accomplish (to no Western advantage).

Basing an ABM system in Turkey would give Ankara leverage over Moscow at a time when the Russians are beginning to lose steam from the Putin resurgence. PRC is slowing its military purchases (Beijing is reverse-engineering their Russian acquisitions and beginning to make sophisticated weapons systems indigenously); other than vodka, Russian exports are Third World in nature – extraction of natural resources; and the loss of Turkey as a cooperative agent in European energy costs Russia its wild card in that arena.

Turkey has always been a stranger in a strange land – neither Arab nor Slav nor Semite nor Persian – yet Turkey has always been a broker between her geopolitical neighbors, and it’s a role the Turks relish.

WikiLeaks Update

OK, we’ve vented against Pfc Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, now let me spend a few minutes on the larger issues involved – the inevitable, if underconsidered, “What now?”

Private Manning is in US Army custody and will doubtless face court martial charges for his unauthorized access to, mishandling and dissemination of, classified materials. This should be done quickly and harshly. Mr Manning’s mail should be forwarded to the wonderfully named United States Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth [KS]. Al Capone took residency there when they closed Alcatraz. If disturbing accounts of civilian Iraqi and Afghani murders can be credibly assigned to Private Manning’s leaked information, he should be inoculated against breathing at those facilities.

The reaction to Private Manning’s transgressions should be equally swift. We need to re-think the largely reactionary 9/11 Commission’s “remedy” of adding layers of bureaucracy in order to streamline intelligence analysis, and the willy-nilly opening of classified networks to one another in order to benefit from information sharing. Neither can possibly reach fruition in the real world, and we are seeing the first weeds of the attempt. A low-ranking analyst who had already been reduced in rank and identified as a potential candidate for discharge for unsatisfactory performance, for reasons I can’t fathom, retained his clearance and “shared” some 800,000 of the government’s secure network’s classified files with WikiLeaks. Oops.

Two things: Reinstate the “need to know” culture regarding classified information; and render computers with access to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) incapable of downloading files to removable drives or accessing insecure portions of the internet.

Mr Assange presents a more complicated picture. He is a foreign national (Australian citizen) that arguably broke US law (the Espionage Act of 1917) from without our borders (Europe-based computers and servers), using a foreign business entity (Iceland/Swedish-based WikiLeaks). For the US Justice Department to pursue him as a criminal would set a very bad precedent. We have resisted the International Criminal Court because we have seen what the court wants to do upon America’s signing-on: the immediate indicting of Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney and George W Bush. We rightfully don’t like it when foreigners attempt to indict our soldiers and political leaders and we shouldn’t follow this path.

WikiLeaks’ actions in this case should be viewed as acts of cyberwarfare, not cybercrime. NSA should be unleashed on their websites (and any subsequent sites they may set up). Our intelligence community should be assembling a dossier on Mr Assange, leaking any embarrassing information and holding onto leveragable information. Nor should his minions be spared. Any of those operatives now conducting DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks on the likes of MasterCard, PayPal and Swedish banks and law offices should be considered, pursued and treated as foreign combatants.

This is the second round – Stuxnet being the first – of honest-to-God cyberwarfare, and by ho-humming it, we only invite more. Mr Assange and WikiLeaks have crossed a Rubicon which cannot be tolerated by civilized society. Piracy, for instance, was stamped out by declaring pirates and their support networks hostis humani generis or “enemies of mankind,” and this kind of indiscriminate releasing of confidential communications between nations should be considered the same. Mr Assange and his ilk need to be made a pariah among civilized nations.