Thursday, October 29, 2009

Propulsion Physics and the future ahead

I recently stumbled on a 2004 presentation by Marc Millis while doing some searches and is well put together. Unfortunetly NASA's former Breakthrough Propulsion Physics (BPP) Project (wiki article here) funding got cancelled a few years ago and today I read in Paul Gilster's Centauri Dreams outlining a report which recommends that NASA reinstate the (also cancelled!) NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts in one form or another, no doubt there are many reasons why they both got cancelled (which I think cancelling BPP was a big mistake regardless of NASA's new lunar or otherwise objectives considering the already minimal funding it received and the great job Marc and others put into it) however unfortunetly this means today that there are no substantially funded organisations dedicated to organising and researching advanced concepts or potential physics breakthroughs that could lead to making interstellar travel practical, economical and a viable proposition so we wait and see what mainstream Physics and individual researchers come up next.

Last night I watched the awesome Ares I-X launch and this is only the little puppy version of the big one they'll be using to launch crew to the Moon (however I'm reading in today's paper that the Moon program funding, yes you guessed could be cancelled!). No doubt money's tight for everyone at the moment but when I see how public money is wasted these days on other things with questional benefits to the public, I wonder...

I've outlined in a previous post why it is important for humans to settle on another planet (preferably on another Earth-like planet which means an interstellar journey to other star systems) and rockets just won't do the job (and are expensive, the Ares launch cost $445m according to the today's paper article).

So it's back to Propulsion Physics and first principles (or revised first principles?). There's no need for me to reiterate on Marc's presentation but the most important points are on p8 and p34:

  1. Mass: Discover new propulsion methods that eliminate (or dramatically reduce) the need for propellant.
  2. Speed: Discover how to circumvent existing limits (light-speed) to dramatically reduce transit times.
  3. Energy: Discover new energy methods to power these propulsion devices.

"These goals are THE breakthroughs needed to conquer the presently impossible ambition of human interstellar exploration."

I'll talk about the Physics of these 3 points in a future post, what striked me in this presentation and what I wanted to mention in this post was on the last page:

"Science community does not address propulsion opportunities, but instead seeks a Theory of Everything. A propulsion focus increases options."
This is a good point, rephrased the Science community seeks to complete the Physics cube below:


Top right corner specifically. This is good as a Relativistic Quantum Theory of Gravity could lead to BPP and answer many unknowns in Physics and the Universe. However only seeking a unified theory of Physics isn't a good approach in my view. String Theorists have spent the last 25 years searching for their unified theory with so far a dead end (Peter Woit's book Not Even Wrong is a good read on this) and makes no new predictions in Physics that are verifiable and testable with the Large Hadron Collider. Even Einstein in his later years searched a unified theory of Physics to no avail. As pointed out earlier the Propulsion focus shouldn't be left out in the mainstream Physics research community. I'm not saying that all research into String Theories for eg should be abandoned (although myself I think it's a dead end) however there needs to be a more balanced focus to propulsion in mainstream Physics research, sometimes approaching a problem from a different angle can lead to productive results and in my view this is why cancelling the BPP Program at NASA was a huge mistake (where they should be leading the world by example). Practical and economical Interstellar flight may turn out to be impossible however while seeking solutions (as history shows in Physics) sometimes people stumble on other unexpected Physics.

What is the current state of affairs? As the BPP site mentions, "No breakthroughs appear imminent." There are many theories floating around however, either the theories haven't stood up to experiment or are inconclusive or there is no funding to test the theories put forth. Out of all the "crackpot theories" submitted each year, if one turns out to be correct, then this could change everything. There needs to be a funded program (like the BPP Project) that investigates and manages all this. For those who wish to dig deeper into all this a very good starting point is the following book: Frontiers of Propulsion Science. For those wondering checkout: What would a relativistic interstellar traveller see? I'll finish this post with a paragraph I like by Walter Drösher and Jochem Hauser in their paper (although I got a bit lost in their Extended Heim Theory and don't quite understand it):

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What cats talk about at the Fish Markets

There are quite a lot of cats at the wharf where the boats are kept and wondered what they sometimes talk about, now I know! :-))

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Who said the sky's the limit and is Physics wrong?


I was walking in the city earlier today and saw these ad billboards in the street:

Normally I wouldn't take a second look (I don't even have a credit card myself, think they're a waste of money) but saw a rocket in the stars so had to study it in detail! :-)) These ads actually give sound advice for anyone into Physics&Astronomy! When I looked at the first ad "Who said the sky's the limit?", immediate thoughts were, well Nature says what the limits are and the maximum speed that anything can travel in our Universe is the speed of light, C = 300,000Km/s.This applies not only to light but also matter, radio waves, information transfer etc. Protons, electrons etc are routinely accelerated to 0.99C at particle accelerators but never go over the speed limit.

Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity 101: "The speed of light in vacuum is always C, independent of the motion of thesource or of the observer".

This at first seems counter intuitive after all if you see a car moving at 100Km/h on the freeway then light leaving their headlights should be travelling at 100Km/h + C right? Wrong, light still travels at C! (Don't worry about the air makes very little difference you could do this in space for eg). This makes perfect sense if you think of everything you see around you immersed in the vacuum and this vacuum (which is a complicated "quantum fluctuating soup") doesn't allow light to travel faster then C. Strange things happen as you travel 1/3C or faster (time dilation etc...)

Second ad basically was telling me that although exploring the Universe with telescopes etc is good, get off your butts and build some ships to do some serious exploring beyond the solar system! ;-) Given the distances involved in our Galaxy, the speed limit (C) imposed on us by the vacuum is problematic. Closest star is 4.2 lightyears away for eg however if you're planning your next trip to Alpha Centauri don't despair this isn't the end of the story there are different types of vacuums which are under study... even Roger Penrose (who wrote the masterpiece The Road to Reality) recently mentions that our current theories are "wrong" although some don't agree with all he says it's interesting reading:

Looking forward to some more American Express credit card ads! ;-)

50 years of space exploration map‏


Checkout this beautiful map illustrating where our probes have been so far in the solar system:

There's a zoomable version at:

Very nice. Checkout the scale at the bottom, you'll see Voyager 1 at 10 billion miles (16.5 billion Kms) way past Pluto's orbit heading into interstellar space and this is the first human made object to leave the solar system. It was launched in 1977 and is still transmitting! No batteries onboard, the probe is powered by Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs):

which should generate electricity for the probe till 2025, at this distance from the sun, solar panels don't work. I think if ET finds the onboard golden record they should have a box office sellout at the movies on their planet! ;-)

Attached photo: Suncat getting ready for the Manly fast ferry service.

Greenwich Longitude turns 125 years old!‏


The Prime Meridian (Longitude 0°) at Greenwich Observatory turned 125 years old! It was born on the 13th October 1884, read about it at:

Gigagalaxy Zoom project‏


Here's a useful website if you haven't got the time to do some stargazing or just wondered what's at the centre of our galaxy, checkout the recently released:

Has high quality photos of our stellar neighbourhoods and you can zoom in and out from some photos etc. If you don't have the time to visit the centre of our galaxy, here it is:

Don't get too close though, there's a black hole at the centre ;-)

Attached photo: Steve Irwin leaving Sydney today

Submarine neutrino communication‏


Here's some interesting reading for you submarine buffs out there:

This Physicist published a paper on how to use neutrinos as a possible effective communication method for submarines underwater to receive messages only. As you know only extra low frequency (ELF-VLF) radio waves can be used for communications by submarines underwater as the higher frequencies get severely attenuated and because of the very low frequency, only very low bit rates can be used. Neutrinos are particles that are created in certain nuclear reactions and radioactive decays, they travel close to the speed of light and interact very rarely with normal matter. Although we don't realise it, right now your body is emitting roughly 400 neutrinos per second due to the naturally occuring radioactive isotopes of Calcium and Potassium in your bones. You are basically neutrino transmitters.

Attached photos:
- Someone who named this barge "Nebula" must be into Astronomy ;-)
- This catamaran had a Compass Adjuster onboard the other morning, heard them call up Harbour Control on Ch13 when they were using transits in the channel. I better finish the course ASAP!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Saturn at equinox and the same colour illusion‏


Checkout these interesting Astronomy Picture of the Day photos:

Goes to show when it comes to Science, appearances can be deceiving, don't always trust your brain ;-) Attached photos: Lithgow today under Anzac bridge (with a nice new Rosman Ferries paint job) and tugboats busy with CSL Pacific a few days ago 6am in White Bay, now this ship definately needs a paint job.

Internal Combustion Engines MIT OpenCourseWare now online‏


For those interested, MIT has released today free online course notes for internal combustion engines including diesel engines:

Click on "Lectures notes" on the sidebar to donwload individual lecture notes or you can download the lot. Last lecture explains hydrogen fuel cells and other techonlogies. Attached today's harbour photos.

New rocky exoplanet found and first detailed photos of an atom!‏


Lots of good things happening in Physics & Astronomy this week! I read an article in today's MX newspaper but check the articles below for more info:

The Astronomers did a good job and confirmed that a planet outside our solar system (500 lightyears away) is rocky (not like Jupiter size planets for eg made of gas). Might be a bit too hot for your comfort though so lets hope the Astronomers get lucky and find another Earth-like planet soon because this one is starting to get too crowded ;-) Have a look at these first detailed photos of the electron clouds of carbon atoms:

The nucleus itself (protons and neutrons) is too small to be seen, between the electrons and the nucleaus itself it's empty space.

Attached photos: ships docked in White Bay last Saturday night. Reef Endeavour has been there for months and Golden Mermaid with the red flashing light on top stank like fertiliser or nitrates, busy discharging into lots of tankers waiting at the wharf.

Lucas Heights nuclear reactor open day‏


In case you didn't know the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor is having an open day for the public on Saturday 19th September (thanks to Tony for the info):

Not sure if I can make it that day but if I'm free I'll be bringingwith me my specially modified geiger counter
:-) I checked again tonight (Sunday) how many ships there are anchored off Newcastle on and I counted over 40 ships!!!?! Talk about busy little Harbour!

Live Ships AIS Map online‏


Checkout this website:

Shows on the map live AIS information of vessels around the world including Sydney. Checkout how many ships there are outside Newcastle waiting for coal!! You'll see some of the Sydney Ferries for eg also have AIS and you can click on the icons to get a photo of the boat and other info if available. Attached photos: Cronulla Ferries.

Degaussing range and nuclear powered ships‏


For those who have to sometimes give commentary during the cruise, here's your big chance to impress your passengers by telling them about the degaussing range at Steele Point, Rose Bay where you sometimes see Navy ships hanging around, find out what's going on:

Another interesting article on nuclear powered ships:

If the hydrogen fuel cell water taxi doesn't kick off at least there's the nuclear powered water taxi option ;-)

Learning resource for Marine Engineers‏


Anyone studying marine engineering subjects might find this website useful:

Although it's geared towards the big ship engines, it has lots of relevant info for smaller ones and associated machinery with neat diagrams/animations.

First Hydrogen Fuel Cell Water Taxi‏


A few months ago you read about the first hydrogen fuel cell commercial charter boat and aircraft in Germany, here's the first water taxi launched in 2003 using this technology:

Build some nuclear/solar/wind/ocean current power stations to make lots of electricity (these don't pump CO2 into the atmosphere) in order make hydrogen gas from sea water, hydrogen gas filling stations and you have a true zero emission transport system. Another option looked at is an engine that burns hydrogen gas(highly flammable) in a combustion chamber directly rather than using fuel cells to make electricity which drive electric motors:;do=show/site=a4e/sid=5666422124a9fbc2f268fd257932636/alloc=1/id=9413

Photos attached: lifeboat drill today at the maritime museum. Note the plaque has a small typo, should read 21.2KW

How many barges can you tow at once?‏


Checkout these interesting articles:

Talk about heavy duty tow job, can you count how many barges they are towing?!?!! And photos about a collision between two ships M/V Marti Princess & M/V Renate Schulte June 2009:

Onboard the Columbian Navy training ship ARC Gloria‏


If you haven't heard the Gloria is in Sydney for another 4 days and is docked in Circular Quay, she's

open to the public (free entry) and went onboard today, unfortunetly I couldn't sneek in the engine room
to take some more photos because of tight security but here are some to clog up your mailbox ;-)

Bee celestial navigation‏


Have you ever wondered how bees manage to tell the other bees where the best flowers are to make honey? It turns out they are very competent at using our closest star and the moon to tell the other bees (by fancy bee dance work) in what direction and distance the flowers are, they even outsmarted the professor while he was doing his bee experiment! So spare a thought next time you put honey in your tea
"It takes about 6 bees life work, and thousands of miles flown, to make one teaspoon of honey"

Photo: Another wedding on the Pontoon, Opera House dropoff.

The Matrix revisited: Is the Universe a giant computer?


A nobel prize winner Physicist has recently published a theory (which has problems) that basically concludes Einstein's views that Nature or "God does NOT play dice" when it comes to quantum mechanics ie quantum mechanics is deterministic rather than probabilistic and there is a hidden mechanism that determines if a state is in A or B for eg rather than say 50% chance for state A and 50% chance for state B. Without getting into the physics, it says

"The universe is a cellular automaton in which reality is simply the read out of a giant, fantasticallycomplex computing machine"

You bloody hope that this computer doesn't run on Windows Vista!!! hehe ;-)))
Attached photo: today True Blue pulling into King Street Wharf, still whale watching season.

Ultimo Science Festival starts this friday‏


In case you people didn't know, the Ultimo Science Festival kicks off this friday night at the Powerhouse Museum with "Psychology, live jazz, physics, space-art, dark matter and more…", be there or be square:

I'll be there ;-) Attached some recent photos dumped from my camera:

Photo 1: Golden Georgia in Athol Bay.
Photo 2: Beautiful ferry "Bundeena" at the Fish Markets.
Photo 3: In the bow thruster compartment on Bella Vista.

A moonbow and a rainbow‏


You have all seen a rainbow and perhaps a double rainbow but have you seen a moonbow at night? This time it is the sunlight reflected from the Moon (moonlight) which creates the effect via refraction from water droplets, checkout this excellent video:

Attached some photos sent by Pete, one of my former students who skippers the ferry Sun on the Hawkesbury River out of Brooklyn. This ferry being just under 12m only requires Coxswain, goes to Dangar Island, Wobby Beach and back 364 days a year early morning till evening. There's also the Hawkesbury Explorer and Hawkesbury (both Master 5 boats) which do regular cruises up the river including the last riverboat postman run. I used to work there for a year after I just got my Master 5 ticket a few years ago, all good fun.

Are there realistic options for going to the stars?‏


Some of you may have wondered when looking up the night sky if interstellar flight is at all possible or is it the dreams of couch potato StarTrek fans? We went to Moon, hopefully Mars not too long, what's next? Here's a recently written readable article that gives a good introduction on the subject:

In short yes there are currently options that could work given our current understanding of Physics, however they would be prohibitively expensive, impractical, too slow etc. The other option is to improve our knowledge of Physics to make interstellar flight less expensive, practical and come up with a fast transport method so the question is still open, good for us! Attached photos: Saw this interesting dredger ship De Bougainville in White Bay yesterday, they're doing work in Botany Bay: