Nuclear and Atomic Radiation Concepts Pictographically Demystified

10 10 2013

Greetings, all.  Today I’m attempting a different, largely pictographic approach to demystifying the concept of “radiation” for the layperson.

Despite the hype, radiation is a natural part of our planet’s, solar system’s, and galaxy’s environment, and one that our biology is equipped to mitigate at ordinary intensities.  It’s all actually surprisingly straightforward.

So, without further ado, here goes – a post in two parts…

PART I – Radiation and Radioactivity Explained in 60 Seconds:

The Atom

This is a generic diagram of the atom, which in various combinations of the same bits and parts is the basic unique building block of all matter in the universe:


This somewhat simplified view of an atom is what makes up the classic “atomic” symbol that most of us were exposed to at the very least in high school.

Radioactive Atoms

However, what is almost never explained in school is that each atomic element comes in different versions – slimmer ones and fatter ones.  When an atom’s core gets too large, either naturally or artificially, it starts to radiate bits of itself away in order to “slim down.”  This is called being radio-active.

So, there’s nothing to “radiation” that we all haven’t been introduced to in school.  Radiation is the name given to familiar bits of atoms (electrons, protons, neutrons) or beams of light when they’re being flung away by an element trying desperately to squeeze into last year’s jeans… metaphorically-speaking, of course.

Here is a diagram illustrating this process.  (Relax! – this is the most complicated-looking diagram in this post):


So, when a radioactive element has radiated enough of itself away and is no longer too large, it is no longer radioactive.  (We say it has “decayed.”)

That’s it!

That’s as complicated as the essential principles of radiation and radioactivity get.  It’s just basic chemistry that isn’t covered in high school, (though in my opinion it should be!).

PART II – Take-Home Radiation Infographics

So, in an effort to help arm you against the rampant misinformation out there, here is a collection of simple diagrams explaining what everyone out there seems to get wrong.  (Feel free to promote and/or distribute with attribution!)

First, what’s the deal with “atomic” energy/radiation versus “nuclear” energy/radiation?  Do they mean the same thing?  Do they not?  Here’s the skinny:


That’s all.  “Nuclear” means you’ve zeroed in on an atom’s core, whereas “atomic” means you’re talking about something dealing with whole atoms.  No big mystery there.

Next, here is a simple diagram explaining the three terms used to describe radiation that are commonly misused in the media, presented clearly (click to enlarge):


(Armed with this, you should be able to see why saying something like, “The radiation is releasing contamination!” doesn’t make a lick of sense.)

Now, here is a diagram explaining the natural sources of radiation we’re exposed to everyday on planet Earth:


And here are the basic principles of radiation safety, all on one, clean diagram (click to enlarge):


The End! 

Despite the time and effort spent socially (politically?) promoting an obscured view of this science (or so it seems), there is nothing more mysterious about radiation than what you see here.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and remember:  We have nothing to fear but fear itself!

Semper Exploro!

The Environmental Case for Extraterrestrial Resources

17 07 2013

During recent travels over the heart of our nation’s fossil fuel development and storage centers, a realization descended upon me in a new and sudden way.  As I peered out of my porthole window at the landscape below, it struck me that a simple glimpse at the current state of our world is the only justification needed for developing extraterrestrial resources.

A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words:

Drilling Pads

Take a closer look.  Different aspects of the image will no doubt strike individual readers first.  But as for me, I saw for the first time a jarring and unsettling truth.  Quite unexpectedly, I was assaulted by the reality that between agricultural development and subsurface mineral resource exploration and extraction, no native portion of the planet’s surface remained as far as I my eyes could take me.

I reached up and took a picture with my phone, seeing for the first time the image of a planet not new but used – a surface completely consumed or discarded.  It was the very first time I’ve had a negative visceral reaction to the breadth of our civilization’s development of the Earth’s surface.

The thought quickly followed that, with an ever-expanding population and given the current course and nature of our civilization’s growth, this is the least developed our world will ever be, barring some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster.

My mind then immediately turned to the idea of life support.

The Holy Grail of Space Exploration

From a space exploration perspective, the idea of the Closed Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) is a critical one.  The holy grail of human space exploration, CELSSs are a natural, self-sustaining life support system, (e.g., a collection of plants that feed us, purify our waste, and supply our air, while our waste, in turn, feeds the plants and supplies their air).

One can quickly see that possessing functioning CELSS technology would enable our ability to establish long-term settlements on space stations, spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds.  We wouldn’t need constant resupply shipments from Earth.

On a massive scale, the Earth’s biosphere has managed to itself become a CELSS after great spans of geologic time and the cooperative adaptation of biology with it.  Unsurprisingly, our biosphere serves as the very (only) natural template for current CELSS research.

So, like the importance of a spacesuit to a lone astronaut on a spacewalk, what struck me as I gazed our of the aircraft window at our pervasive impact on the environment is that our biosphere is all that stands between us and the great, inhospitable reaches of space.

Damaging our species’ only functioning life support system by compromising our biosphere is a terrifying proposition.  Just as was the case with timber resource utilization early in this nation’s development – the rude awakening that what was perceived to be a limitless resource was instead all-too-finite – so too might it be time we open our eyes to the realities of our finite world from a life support perspective?

The first Earthrise imaged by a human.  B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8.  (Credit: NASA)

The first Earthrise imaged by a human. B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8. (Credit: NASA)

Encouraging a Planetary-Perspective Paradigm Shift

Whereas the rationale our society has adopted in implementing better sustainability practices, such as recycling, is to “protect the environment,” I was awakened to the reality that from a planetary perspective a greater truth is the reverse:  It is not humanity that protects the Earth’s “environment,” rather, it’s the Earth’s biosphere (environment) that protects us – from asphyxiation and starvation in orbit about the Sun.

So, if we can encourage a broader (and I dare say more scientific) view of our world in the cosmos, we might all come to view our biosphere not as simply “the Environment” in which we live but instead as a crucial, planet-scale, natural life support system operating to keep us all alive in the dark, unforgiving, and unyielding reaches of space.

Such a paradigm shift, which could be driven by one, simple directive – to preserve our global biosphere as a planetary resource – logically compels our development in two directions:

  1. Minimize the surface area impact of what must be located or conducted on Earth’s surface.
  2. Maximize the impact of that which can be located or conducted off-world.

Should we accomplish the task of even beginning such a conversation, the right sorts of questions will follow:

  • Can we consolidate, enable, and focus mining operations in areas of less biospheric importance?
  • With limited land surface area, can we take advantage of much more plentiful airspace for agriculture, (e.g., vertical farming, or perhaps explore even the possibility of aerostat-based agriculture?)
  • Alternatively, can we increase the use of marine farming (mariculture)?
  • Might not we lessen or reverse the burden of natural resource utilization on Earth’s biosphere via the development of off-world mineral resources?
  • After that, could we begin a shift toward extraterrestrial agriculture and export back to Earth?  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, anyone?)

By merely engaging in this mode of thought in a culturally-significant way, it seems possible that not only would we develop and promote the use of extraterrestrial resources, but we could and would simultaneously become smarter about the way we structure our communities and settlements here on Earth.

Where does this lead?  Well, it seems to me that the clearest path is the serious, practical use and implementation of Arcology research, which is something I believe we as a civilization are ready to pursue in earnest.

In other words, an inevitable outcome of leveraging and fully harnessing the technological advances at our fingertips to actively preserve greater portions of our planet’s biosphere would promote our civilization’s growth and maturation along two fronts – the creation of an extraterrestrial infrastructure and economy, and the development of sustainability technologies that would improve life for us all.

A Call for Wiser Expansion

While certainly I’m not the first to voice these sorts of opinions, nor was this the first time I’ve considered these sorts of concepts, there was something fundamentally different about the experience I had as I was flying above majestic portions of the country, witnessing what for the first time appeared to my eyes to be the subtle but pervasive erosion of our species’ only life support infrastructure.

It was the context.

Thinking of the Earth as a closed life support system not from within but from beyond, as a system sustaining us against a vast and threatening cosmos, it struck me that elevating our collective views above and beyond our world’s horizon may be more than just financially lucrative and scientifically fruitful.

In working to shift the burden of our growth off-world, and considering the social perspective shift that doing so will require with respect to the way we view our own civilization, (e.g., as a people for the first time directly connected to an environment that extends beyond our planet), we should reinforce the pursuit by simultaneously cultivating a view of our world’s biosphere as an ultimately rare resource – or perhaps even the rarest natural resource (as the only known, functioning CELSS to-date!).

In doing so, perhaps we can accomplish several worthy objectives at once:

While lengthening the useful span of our planet’s life support system, we could also inspire and challenge ourselves to finally become smarter and wiser about how we populate our world… and in the process, start thinking seriously about how we move beyond.

Calculating your own natural radiation dose in context

26 06 2012


Traditional Radiation Trefoil Hazard Symbol. (Image credit: ORAU)

A Dose of Radiation Information

How much radiation is normal?

In light of Fukushima, sensationalized media, political fear-stoking, and rampant misinformation regarding radioactivity, consider this post an easy-to-reference tool/resource.  With it, you can be armed to understand and quickly make sense of this over-mystified, natural aspect of reality when it comes up.

For starters, here’s the simple reality about how much radiation you receive in a year just for standing on Planet Earth:

The average natural annual radiation dose for a U.S. resident is about 300 millirem, and when including man-made commercial products and medical procedures (MRI scans, etc.), the average dose jumps up to 600 millirem per year.  This is what we all get every year and bears no known, measured relationship to developing cancer.

  • Note: For the international units, divide all “millirem” numbers by 100, (i.e. 3.6 millisieverts.)  Or, an online converter can be found here.

However, what does that mean?  I’m completely aware that unless you’re a professional in the field of health physics, (as I am,) this number has no context.  So, allow me to explain just what this really means using things we can all identify with.

Hold on to your hats.

So, What’s My Dose?

For context, below is a list of the amount of radioactivity you receive in a year from very familiar items/sources:

  • Cosmic radiation  = 26-96 millirem (higher with altitude)
  • From standing on the Earth itself (geology) = 20-90 millirem (higher nearer igneous mountains)
  • From your own brick/stone/concrete building = 7 millirem
  • From your own body (food/water!) = 40 millirem
  • From breathing (naturally-produced radon) = 200+ millirem
  • For flying 1,000 miles in an airplane = 1 millirem
  • From having a dental/chest/normal x-ray = 50 millirem each
  • From having an annual mammogram = 75 millirem
  • From having a single CT scan = 150 millirem
  • From smoking a pack of cigarettes a week (polonium) = 200 millirem
  • From consumer goods = 10 millirem

Just add these up to produce your own, custom average annual radiation dose.

Wait.  My house/food/body/atmosphere is radioactive?

Yes.  Not to fear.  Just like the small amounts of chemicals that we can reliably tolerate, (e.g., trace arsenic, lead, etc.,) so too are trace amounts of radioactivity completely tolerable.

Fukushima in Context

Now, as you can see in the above plot of the radioactivity measured at the entrance of Fukushima nuclear powerplant as the disaster happened, it looks pretty dramatic.

  • (Note: The numbers are reported in “micro”sieverts per hour, which are admittedly reading a much smaller span of time, (hours versus years,) but are in units 1,000 times smaller than the “milli”sievert international units described above.  This is important.)

However, instead of running for the hills just yet, let’s take a look at what the numbers actually say.

The March 15th hydrogen explosion at the plant, which occured roughly 84 hours after the earthquake, shows the largest spike of activity: for a brief period upwards of nearly 12,000 microsieverts per hour.

But let’s take this apart.  What does that mean?  12,000 microsieverts is the same as 12 millisieverts.  12 millisieverts is the same as 1,200 millirem.

Now, compare this to the above list of natural radiation values, with an eye toward the annual average does of 360 millirem.

Yes, if reading correctly, this implies that simply standing on planet Earth every year nets everyone the same external radiation dose that would have been received if standing at the gates of the Fukushima Daichi powerplant during the worst part of the disaster for a full 15 minutes.

With these, even worst-case numbers, it becomes obvious that one could stand at the entrance to Fukushima during the worst period of the disaster for a full three minutes and have earned only the equivalent radiation dose of… an average chest x-ray.

Granted, this isn’t something one would necessarily want.  This is upwards of 15% of your natural average dose.  -But your biology wouldn’t ever notice the difference.  And one could go many orders of magnitude more than that before there would be any reasonable expectation of an acute health effect.

More realistically, even standing at the Fukushima gates during the unprecedented event of external venting from the internal containment of reactor number 2, (with an exposure rate of 0.5 millisievert per hour), it’s a full hour of loitering there before one would rack up the external exposure of simple set of dental x-rays.

Funny how the perception and the reality differ, eh?

Unwanted radioactive material is serious, just as a leak from underground gasoline storage tanks that could contaminate drinking water is serious.  But that seriousness must be given honest context.


Hopefully this has provided a window into the reality of radiation protection, and it is my sincere wish that this was and will continue to be a useful go-to when radiation numbers come up in the media.

Feedback is welcome, and if desired, I would be happy to put other radiation values in context… (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, going to the Moon, etc.)

Go forth and combat radiation misinformation!

[Sources for the above information: American Nuclear Society, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement, the U.S. Department of Energy.]

Radiation, Japan, and Irresponsible Reporting: Part IV

29 05 2012

(Credit: Jeremy Gwin)

This post has been lying in wait for quite some time.  I thought it best that I let it simmer and distill for a while… The truth is that I was simply getting too frustrated with the Fukushima coverage to compose a sensible post.  Now, with a little extra time and perspective, please allow me to present Part IV (relative to previous Parts I, II, and III) of my attempt to throw a cup of knowledge onto the raging inferno of misinformation out there relating to “radiation” and the media/cultural fallout (ahem) from the reactor failures in Japan. 

Just how bad is it?  Read on.

Media Blunders

A year ago, just when I thought the tide was turning on the sensationalistic coverage of nuclear reactor incidents in Japan and elsewhere, the media pulled another wave of cheap stunts.  -I had been just about ready to bury the hatchet, and I suddenly realized that it needed sharpening.  Much sharpening.

With (it seems) an ebb-and-flow that correlates to how sensational (or boring) other news is at the time, adding to my deep-seated suspicion that “radiation”-stories are linked to low ratings, the Fukushima coverage swung ’round from simple paranoia and approached raving madness.

Let’s start with this article:

(Credit: The Coleman Company)

When we get into the guts of the piece, the info finally comes out that the amount of radiologically-impacted water in question included only 15 tons and that it was low level radioactivity that was discovered.  That’s important info!  Nay, the most important info.    “Low level” radioactivity includes Coleman lantern mantles, tritium watch luminescence, and americium in smoke detectors – things you already own, wear, or have in your house. 

(Indeed, as I have mentioned in the past, you yourself emit low levels of gamma radiation – see: Potassium-40).

Then, let’s move on to this Fox News article about radioactive isotopes found in breast milk in Japan:

First, the good.  The title of the report states that “radioactive substances” have been found in the breast milk of several Japanese women.  That’s good.  At least we’re moving beyond misnomers like, “Radiation found in breast milk.”

However, then there’s the bad.  And it’s really bad.  The amount of radiation discovered is given no real context.  (The author perhaps didn’t understand it in the first case.)  In fact, while the activity of radioactive material discovered is explained to be nearly a hundred times beneath any safety limit, the critical information is that these limits themselves are far below the range where any negative health effects are to be expected.  Further, if a similar survey were performed in the United States, (with no relation to Fukushima,) radioactive substances would be identified in a proportion of the population.  Seriously.  -And contrary to what stark opponents would have you believe, there are such things as incidental doses of radioactive material.  Our bodies are built to withstand it.  (Radioactive material is naturally-occuring, after all.)

Down the Misinformation Rabbit Hole

Then, we go from bad to worse.  Surprisingly, the top recent offender here was on CNN.  In what I can describe as nothing more than a blatant scare segment, I found myself completely floored when Dr. Michau Kaku, a theoretical physicist whose popular books I greatly admire, was guilty of not only fanning the irrational fear of “radiation,” but he himself uttered the greatest fear-mongering statement I have ever heard.

‘We “came close” to losing northern Japan!’

…What?!  Lost it?  You mean, Dr. Kaku, that the county turned left instead of right, and a clerk at the front of the store had to call on the intercom to get Northern Japan to reunite with the rest of the country?

Liquid Disposal Inc. chemical superfund site. (Credit: EPA)

C’mon!  Unbelievable, and patently untrue.  The Fukushima cleanup will be a difficult but not insurmountable decontamination and decomissioning project.  -This is no different than a cleanup of a historically-toxic steel mill or other major industrial installation that has the potential to release contaminants into the environment.  (See: Superfund Projects.)

Scary Because it Sounds Hip

Then, there’s reporting from the likes of the following articles, (and I otherwise completely love Gizmodo,) spewing misused terminology and editorials-as-fact like Linda Blair does green soup in the Exorcist.

No one has the right to a radiation-free existence, a statement that is assailed in the first story.  A giant gravity-driven nuclear fusion reactor lights our sky every day.  Hundreds of thousands of similar fusion reactors bombard our planet with cumulative radiation at all times from space.  Radioactive material resides in a great proportion of the rocks around us and bombards us from all sides.  And even plantlife, rich in potassium, hits us with radiation whenever we near it.  Our DNA repair mechanisms arose in such an environment, and it typically causes us no concern at all.

Godzilla, a surviving prehistoric oceanic dinosaur mutated and angered by atomic blasts. (Credit: Ishirô Honda)

And regarding the second story, relating a fission reactor to an atomic bomb borders on criminally sensational.  Terms like “terriby dangerous” and “particularly lethal” are tossed about to great effect with no apparent understanding of their context.  And while relating Fukushima to Hiroshima in “bequerels” – a unit of radioactivity – they speak about the release of cesium as though it is in terms of mass.  It is not!  The activity of the Cs-137 released to the environment in bequerels is very different than the amount of Cs-137 released to the environment in grams – and activity decays with time.  So to say Fukushima is the equivalent of 168 “nukes,” (another misnomer,) mixing up descriptions with unit types, and tossing around editorial qualifiers, it is completely clear that the author has no idea what he is really talking about.  -Only that he fears it and apparently wants a catchy lead line.

  • To the point: The human body possess ~4.4 MegaBequerels of activity from Potassium-40.  The radiation released from the population of the United States just standing there already amounts to more than a TeraBequerel.  The rocky mountains contains millions of TeraBequerels of radioactive material, if you want to quantify it that way, (which is odd.) 

Literally, though while not encouraged, the Fukushima release is a drop in the bucket.  A statistical bump.  It’ll be scientifically traceable for years to come, but it won’t cause Godzilla to emerge from the seas to destroy Tokyo.  And it certainly isn’t the equivalent of “168 Nukes.”  Or at least, not in the way the author seems to be intending it.

Piracy-induced Global Cooling, and Other Correlation Fallacies

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this completely insane and somewhat retracted story claiming that a bump in infant mortality had been attributed to the slight rise in detectable radioactive material breezing over the United States after the Fukushima incident:

Modern radiation detection instrumentation is extraordinarily sensitive.  We regularly detect single photons interacting with a detector crystal, log it, and perform statistics conducted over several hours or days.  This allows scientists to make statements like, “A 30% increase over background,” which is essentially measuring 30 times zero. 

So, the levels of radiation detected over the U.S. in this case were far, far beneath what a human body would even notice on planet Earth.  (Let me put it this way – the radiation intensity of a granite countertop would wash out the signal.)  The idea that this “gee-whiz”-grade radiation could have caused anything to infants – in such a short span of time (!) – was patently ridiculous, and physically impossible.  (There is no mechanism for such a miniscule amount of radiation to have casued any damage that led to infant death in such a short amount of time.)

(Credit: Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

I am reminded of the now-classic Flying Spaghetti Monster example of a correlation fallacy which states:

  • Since global temperatures have gone up as seaborne piracy has been eliminated and the world’s oceans made more secure, a lack of pirates in the ocean demonstrably causes global warming!  Therefore, to combat global warming, we must put more pirates out on the seas!

This is an over-the-top example of how correlation does not indicate cause-and-effect.  Just so, the authors of the aforementioed study sought to politically paint radiation as a “bad guy” and simply found a correlation, making no effort to tease out cause-and-effect.  As was later made clear, there isn’t any in this case. 

Yet another example of rampant cultural anti-radiation/radiation science bias.

Wading through the Spin

Honestly, the situation at the Fukushima reactors is no picnic, without a doubt.  However, needless sensationalism in the media continued, especially when the category of the accident was upgraded to level 7, “the same as the Chernobyl disaster!”    

… *sigh* … Let me try to untangle this one. 

The important thing here is that a “level 7” event has no ceiling.  That’s it.  Once something crosses the threshold, whether just met or far exceeded, the event would be classified the same.  The Fukushima event is much closer to the former, whereras Chernobyl is more the latter.

In reality, despite the classification, the Fukushima incident is still more like Three Mile Island than Chernobyl for very specific reasons.  (The Three Mile Island nuclear accident is still synonymous with nuclear terror, yet how many people were killed?  Zero.  In the end, radioactive iodine was detected in local milk at a dose much less than one would receive from ingesting a single banana.  This is how badly the scenario has been spun.) 

Risk.  It’s all about risk.  Three Mile Island arguably did not perceptibly increase the risk of negative health effects to people in the region at all.  Now, look at the risk involved with cars.  The automobile involves combustion explosions, toxic chemicals, sparking fires, asphyxiating fumes, deaths from vehicle malfunctions or accidents, etc.  By simple math (number of injuries, illnesses or deaths per year,) cars are extremely dangerous – far, far more dangerous than nuclear reactors – and if you subscribe to anthropogenic (man-caused) climate change, running these CO2-spewing devices all over the world has a much greater potential for ecological impact than do nuclear reactors, ignoring the fact that most underground fuel storage tanks at gas stations regularly leak into the environment(!).

If the media waved the risk of driving cars in everyone’s faces the way nuclear power gets hammered, everyone would immediately call for banning cars… and this is especially pointed considering that tens of thousands of people actually die annually on the roads, as opposed to the zero annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants.

Let’s look at the risks of death in context:

  • Annual traffic fatalities in 2010:  ~33,000
  • Annual deaths in 2009 due to common chemicals:  ~1,500
  • Annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants and/or radioactive waste:  0

(The irony here is that the ionizing radiation exposure that is actually likely to cause an increase in cancer is the one no one really fears:  Medical x-rays and MRIs.  We’re getting more of them these days, and because this is ionizing radiation just like that being emitted by Fukushima, cancer statistics will likely see a bump as a result.)

Airline flight attendants receive a much higher radiation dose than any nuclear powerplant worker due to their proximity to cosmic rays (radiation) from space.  No one worries about flying, and everyone worries about the nuclear powerplant next door.

(For a concise versionof the nuclear safety argument, see my comment string here: )

A Final Thought

In terms of environmental impact, the Fukushima incident is arguably less significant than the Exxon Valdez or the BP oil spills, and it is on-par with the superfund sites I mentioned earlier.  Not rosy, but not the end of the world. 

So, how is it that so much fear and panic has been generated, trumping so many other more prevalent risks, when it is based literally on hot air?  It is a mystery to me. 

Perhaps it can be attributed ultimately to a habit of fear regarding radiation.

If we imagine the alternative – a culture providing socially unimpeded support for atomic and nuclear energy, power, and technology, (since our culture already awards this to toxic chemical technology,) we may well have already solved many of the energy problems of today.  Ancient stars worked tirelessly to produce the radioactive elements common in the deep Earth and sprinkled throughout the planet’s crust.  Misused, they are harmful.  Wisely used, they present energy sources with the ability to outlive our planet and our star.  (Talk about efficiency!)

In any event, my final point is to simply keep a critical eye open when it comes to media coverage of radiological events.  Watch for how infrequently health physicists or radiological engineers who are speacialists in nuclear technology are interviewed.  -And hopefully, if you’ve arrived at the end of this long-winded tirade, this has given some food for thought. 

Until next time!

Japanese lunar light farming

1 06 2011

Rendering of a solar array ring on the Moon's surface. (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)

Definition of mixed emotions: Reading an ambitious plan recently released by the Shimizu Corporation of Japan that effectively wields fear of radiation to incentivize lunar colonization for solar power generation. 

Wow.  While I abhor anything that preys upon the irrational fear of nuclear energy, I’m all for the use of solar power.  (I’d like to make the ironic point here that “solar power” is also nuclear energy – the result of a giant nuclear fusion reactor, albeit a natural one.)  I’m also certainly for anything that makes an extraterrestrial business case, and I further endorse any plan that leads us off-world so that we can begin developing the practical know-how to live there.  Throw in the fact that the endeavor would ease stress on the terrestrial ecosystem at the same time, and the idea seems like a home run.

Diagram depicting the lunar power delivery process. (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)

How does it work?  Quite simply.  Called the LUNA RING, solar arrays are to be installed across the lunar surface in an equatorial belt.  Panels on the sun-facing side of the Moon then deliver energy via circumferential transmission lines to laser and microwave transmitters on the Earth-facing side.  These transmitters then beam the energy to receiving stations on the Earth, providing power enough for all.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it may be.  The problem, like many great ideas, is funding.  The technology is all but completely available to make an attempt, but the capital costs here are incomprehensible.  Yet-to-be-invented tele-robotics plays a major role in construction, (which as I’ve previously mentioned is a very smart move,) and when weighed in combination with untried lunar transport, operations, and manufacturing techniques, equates to a seriously steep R&D curve.

However, this sort of distance planning can demonstrate that the basic elements already exist, which may be exactly what we need to convince  governments and the power industry that the venture is possible.  And, if Japan suddenly puts the economic weight of the government behind a plan like this, e.g., by making a call to return to the Moon and by actually launching small-scale versions of this system, then we should all take note… and I believe we should all participate.

The International Space Station is an endeavor that has and will continue to benefit many.  An international effort to establish renewable lunar-terrestrial power production can benefit everyone, both immediately as well as by developing the skills we’ll need to expand into the cosmos.

Good on ya’, Shimizu Corporation, for thinking big.  Hopefully it’ll catch on.

Radiation, Japan, and irresponsible reporting: Part II

22 03 2011

Example of a uranium ore mine, a very natural source of radiation and radioactive material… and contamination if you track uranium dust home with you. (Uncredited)

So, after my last post, you’ve got the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between radioactivity (overweight atoms), radioactive material (the material containing or composed of the overweight atoms), radiation (invisible light and particles emitted by the overweight atoms), and contamination (having radioactive material someplace you don’t want it).

Hopefully, you can also see why mixing these up prevents people from making any sense of either the situation at hand or what scientists tell them (when they’re actually interviewed) on the news.

For instance, if a newscaster says something akin to, “A plume of radiation was released,” well, that doesn’t really make sense.  That’s like saying, “A plume of blue has been released.”  You can release a plume of blue something, be it smoke, confetti, etc., but you can’t release blue.

Similarly, radiation is produced by something else – so, you could say, “A plume of radioactive steam has been released,” and that means that the plume of radioactive steam would be producing radiation as it moved and dissipated, which is perfectly reasonable.  However, just saying the radiation part is nonsensical, and further, adds to the terrifying mystique around the word “radiation” …

Radioactivity is just chemistry and physics, nothing more, nothing less.

Let me provide a second example.  If a scientist reports that there is “radiation” detected somewhere, you now are prepared to understand what he’s not saying, which can actually be more valuable than what he said.  In saying that radiation has been detected, the scientist has not said that they’ve actually found the radioactive material responsible for producing the radiation, or further, any radioactive contamination.  He’s simply saying that instruments have detected either the invisible, high-energy light (gamma rays/x-rays) or atomic particles being shed by radioactive material.  The radiation in this case could be from the sun, plants, humans (yes! – we’ll get to that), granite, radon from igneous rocks, or something more sinister – the scientist hasn’t specified.  He’s reporting facts.  -At such and such a location, radiation of a given intensity has been found.

So, what can such a statement tell you?  It can tell you from a health perspective how long it’s safe to be in the area where the radiation was detected, but it says nothing about the nature, presence, or movement of the material responsible for producing the radiation.  I cannot stress how important it is that this be made clear in the media.

So, for retention’s sake, I’ll pause here to keep these posts divided into brief segments.  Stay tuned for Part 3, where we discuss how radiation is truly crippled by the laws of physics, how that can be best (and simply!) used to your advantage, and just exactly why it’s bonkers for everyone to be snapping up iodine pills.

Until then, cheers.

Exploring Test Cell C with ArcGIS Online

22 03 2011

ESRI logo. (Credit: ESRI)

The future is now.  GIS forerunner company ESRI has recently published much of their geospatial analysis capability online… for free.  Implementing the philosophy that knowledge is power and that all peoples and nations should be empowered to make smart and responsible decisions, ESRI is seeking to change the world by making powerful GIS tools available to anyone with web access.

-And they’ve included not only the tools, but the data as well.  Called “base layers,” this data is literally something you can add to a map with a click – like roads, topography, vegetation, weather… you name it.

For only the mildest example of what they’re doing, check out a map of the Nuclear Rocket Development Station’s Test Cell C.

Explore, play around with it, create your own map web apps… get creative.  With this kind of power at your fingertips, from checking out whether or not your house is on a floodplain to investigating political demographics in your area, there is literally no limit to what you can do with this.


Dealing with space contamination

24 08 2010

Operation of LOCAD-PTS swabbing unit on the palm of a NASA spacesuit during simulated activities at Meteor Crater, Arizona; 09/2005. Credit: Dr. Jake Maule.

Planetary Protection, despite how it sounds, does not refer to a Bruce-Willis-style suicide mission to save Earth from an incoming asteroid.  However, it is one of those practical space exploration concerns that will only get more important with time.

So, what is planetary protection (PP)?

Think of it as the discipline of preventing the spread of interplanetary biological contamination, either from or to Earth, by astronauts, rovers, and anything else we might send between worlds.

For instance, what good is the search for life on another world if we actually deliver it there, (e.g., bacteria hitching a ride on the outside of a spacecraft) – or worse – if we accidentally contaminate the site and kill the life we’re looking for?

To this end, NASA scientists have been developing the LOCAD-PTS, which stands for Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System.  Much like a Star Trek “tricorder,” the handheld device includes an electronic swab wand and onboard processor designed for the rapid testing of biological substances.  In just 15 minutes, an analysis can be performed and contamination results delivered to a waiting astronaut.

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams using the LOCAD aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A number of field tests have been performed with the system so far, with many actually performed in space on the International Space Station to determine how biological material is transferred from Earth to space, and to monitor the spread of that material while there.  Samples were taken both inside and outside the station.  Beyond contamination on the exterior of spacecraft being transported to another world, in a closed environment the movement of biological material is also important to ensure astronaut health.

Even better here is the famed NASA technology “trickle-down” effect.  The LOCAD system as tested by NASA will also be highly useful on Earth.

Applications of the LOCAD procedures and technology include not only science on Earth, but also detecting lethal viral outbreaks and helping first responders during a potential biological attack.

With the forethought of technology programs like this, not only will all worlds involved be kept more pristine, but any data gathered will be that much more defensible.  Here’s hoping that before too much longer, the offspring of the LOCAD will get to see some action off-world.

Plant living on the Moon?

13 06 2010

Lunar Oasis project logo. Credit: ParagonSDC, Odyssey Moon LLC

If plans unfold as originally intended, one unexpected result of Google’s Lunar X Prize (which, like the original Ansari X Prize, is intended to spur private industry involvement in space development,) may be the transport and growth of the Moon’s first living plant.

Odyssey Moon Ventures LLC and Paragon Space Development Corporation announced a partnership in spring 2009 to create and deliver a lunar greenhouse.

Industry titan Paragon, a forerunner in space life support systems, is leading the charge with Odyssey, which was formed to compete for the Lunar X Prize, to create a “Lunar Oasis.”  This isn’t the first time Paragon has been involved with a project of this sort, as they’d previously designed a potential Mars sealed plant growth chamber for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lunar Oasis module prototype. Credit: Odyssey Moon LLC

The Moon is a particularly harsh environment, even when compared to Mars, and the the Lunar Oasis will need to protect its floral inhabitant(s) from solar and cosmic radiation while providing a temperate environment able to supply and manage nutrients, water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen.

According to their press release more than a year ago, the ideal astro-plant is from the Brassica family (of mustard fame), which needs only 14 days to complete a growth-seed cycle.

As fate would have it, this is also the length of a lunar day.

Now, we haven’t heard from the Lunar Oasis guys in a while, (more than a year,) and this may indicate that the project has fallen away, which would be a pity.  Projects like these, which capture the spirit and imagination – something familiar taking hold on an alien world – are exactly what we need these days to kindle the public mind to engage with private space.

Anyone else heard anything?

Contingency Plans

26 02 2010

A short note, today, on something that struck me while out in the east-central Nevada project area for work:  Remote fieldwork = contingency planning.  That’s really all there is to it.  Take my latest trip this week, for example.  In our project area, we’re really off the grid.  What we call a road can at times barely qualify as a four-wheel drive trail, and most wouldn’t attempt some of our routes with a helicopter, much less a truck:

Northern Spring Valley, NV.

Chaining up to head up a mountain.

Because we’re so far from people or supplies, even more than on other projects, priority one is getting the data, plain and simple.  It’s such a high priority not only because data is valuable from a scientific perspective, but largely because it’s very expensive to obtain when you consider the cost of our time (four of us, two per vehicle), vehicle wear-and-tear, hotel rooms for the week, etc.  All of that expense is for nothing if we don’t get to our sites for the opportunity to make our measurements, download data from the instruments we have installed, and perform much-needed maintenance.

Making measurements fom a mountainside.

So, we push the envelope – that’s what we’re paid for.  It’s rough enough to reach our measurement sites on a good day with dry roads, and in winter time it takes even more finesse.  Weighing against pushing too hard, however, is the fact that the only thing more expensive than not getting the data is if you break a truck trying.  Then you’ve not only incurred the expense of lost time, (which equals lost data,) and vehicle and/or equipment repair, but now you’re paying for whoever has to come to bail you out.  If it’s the other team, then they’re not getting data, either.

We sank our 10,000lb truck up to the axles, spent an extra hour digging out, but made it.

Bearing all of this in mind, the punchline is that when we’re out there, we need to go for it.  But, we also need to have thought out our contingencies ahead of time.  If you get in trouble, help is hours away – assuming you can get word out that you need it.  You need to make sure you have what you need to tackle the unexpected.  Sometimes this amounts to little more than an extra shovel or ice-pick, (which are surprisingly versatile), and some ol’-fashioned grit and determination.  Experience to know what to expect helps, but imagination is also really handy when you get a curve ball from Mother Nature.

That’s all.  Knowing how to dance around the line between being gung-ho and being foolhardy really means knowing your capabilities and knowing how to sense when you’ve gotten yourself in farther than you can get yourself out.

That’s something I’m glad to have experienced firsthand and something I feel (and hope NASA will as well) is absolutely necessary for anyone contemplating leaving boot tracks off-world.

The prize: An instrument station. -Punchline: Know thyself, thy truck, & thy shovel.

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